This is Black Health Matters, a series shedding light on the health realities of Black people in America. Akilah Cadet, DHSc, MPH, in partnership with Healthline, aims to educate about inequities to inspire a world where everyone can attain their full health potential, regardless of the color of their skin.


Black Lives Matter.

It’s chanted in our streets. Every news outlet is talking about it. Statements from large companies are in support of it. There’s a synchronized outcry to ensure that Black Lives Matter in this nation.

Black Lives Matter is a public health issue.

In 2013, three Black women started Black Lives Matter in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Now a global network, Black Lives Matter organizes to assure Black people are treated with humanity.

Monday, May 25th, 2020 took the unprecedented times we’re living in to the next level.

That day, a Harvard-educated Black man named Christian Cooper was harassed by a white woman.

She called the cops and said, “There’s an African American man threatening my life.” All he did was ask her to follow the rules to leash her dog in Central Park.

Later that day George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white cop.

For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, a Minneapolis police officer had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck while Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.” Three other officers looked on, listening to George Floyd call for his mother before his final breath.

Shortly after, “Black Lives Matter” was shouted in the streets all over America.

How ‘Black Lives Matter’ relates to health

The way communities are born, grow, live, work, and age determines their overall health and wellness.

These factors are known as the social determinants of health, and they affect everything from nutrition to employment opportunities. They set the stage for overall well-being.

Unfortunately, many Black people don’t have access to healthy environments in which to thrive.

Illustrations by Ruth Basagoitia

ECONOMIC STABILITY

Economic stability means access to money and regular income to support your needs.

According to data based on adults of different ethnic groups who were working before and after the pandemic, less than half of Black people in the nation are employed.

This means debt, rents, mortgages, and other bills are more difficult to pay.

There may also be limited opportunities for support for Black people, and unemployment may not be enough to cover expenses.

It’s still unknown what the impact of a mass economic shutdown will have in America, but evidence already shows that Black people will once again be disadvantaged.

NEIGHBORHOOD AND PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT

Your neighborhood and physical environment provide a healthy place to live.

Healthy places are safe. They have parks with playgrounds, limited crime, and reliable transportation, along with high rates of homeownership. Many Black neighborhoods have only one or two hallmarks of a healthy physical environment.

With documented widespread cases of police brutality, Black people and protestors are calling for an end to police departments in cities, schools, and neighborhoods.

There is a myth that more policing means safer neighborhoods, but this isn’t the case for everyone.

Black adults are 5 times as likely as white adults to say they’ve been unjustly stopped by law enforcement. According to the same survey, 75 percent of white people felt police used the right amount of force in their roles compared to 33 percent of Black people.

Activists and everyday people are leading a call to action to direct police funds into communities to provide parks, community centers, and other ways to keep Black people healthy and safe.

The idea is that investing in the social determinants would dramatically increase the health outcomes of Black communities. Evidence suggests that healthy communities experience less crime.

EDUCATION

Education starts from preschool to college.

Schools in mostly Black neighborhoods aren’t funded like schools in mainly white neighborhoods. White neighborhoods statistically have more homeownership and more expensive homes. Education funds come from taxes, and taxes on more expensive homes lead to more money for schools in the neighborhood.

Many Black Americans don’t have access to owning a home. Banks often offer Black people higher interest loans than white people, or they won’t lend money to Black people at all.

When Black people can’t own homes, it makes it more difficult to build wealth for their families. Without wealth, college education isn’t a possibility for many Black people.

Poorly funded K-12 schools in Black communities provide students with fewer opportunities to be prepared for, learn about, and apply to four-year colleges and scholarships.

FOOD

Access to healthy food where you live is vital.

Black neighborhoods are often food deserts, which means they have no grocery stores within a reasonable traveling distance. Residents must resort to liquor stores, fast food, or have reliable transportation to get to a grocery store.

Dr. Tiffany Lester, functional medicine physician at Parsley Health, emphasizes the importance of nutrition for physical and mental health in the Black community.

“In a food desert, what do you do to support healthy living?” Lester asks. While there are food delivery alternatives, Lester points out “there is privilege with food delivery as it is more expensive.”

For many Black families, extra expenses are unrealistic.

“The inequities for Black people are a vicious cycle,” Lester says.

In addition to food access issues, most health professionals don’t talk about nutrition in a way that’s sensitive to culture, tradition, and community.

COMMUNITY AND SOCIAL CONTEXT

Community and social context include being accepted and valued by your community.

We know what stress can do to physical and mental health. For Black people, there’s an additional invisible layer of stress due to police brutalitydiscriminationmicroaggressions, stereotyping, and racism.

Research has also tied racism to high blood pressure in Black patients.

Right now, Black mothers are collectively grieving the loss of George Floyd as they remember how he called for his mother in the final minutes of his life.

Black people often hide their feelings around the current injustices toward Black people while at work, especially in corporate settings. This can stem from fear of being viewed negatively by non-Black colleagues, as well as the fear of being relied on to educate others about racism.

Some are more vocal and advocate for their Black peers, also causing tremendous stress. Additional stress can lead to or complicate existing health problems.

THE HEALTHCARE SYSTEM

The healthcare system provides access to care, hospitals, and insurance.

Due to factors like subpar housing and lack of access to healthy food and culturally competent care, Black people experience more chronic illness.

Black women are 4 times more likely to die during childbirth compared to white women.

Black people who develop COVID-19 are dying at rates 50 percent or higher when compared to white people in some states. For example, in Wisconsin, Black people represent 27 percent of deaths when only 6 percent of the population is Black.

This is all on top of implicit bias in some healthcare providers, which affects how much and what type of care is provided to Black patients.

For instance, some doctors believe that Black people will misuse pain medication or have thicker skin due to less sensitive nerves.

I live with a rare heart condition that took almost 2 years to be diagnosed. It’s often overlooked as stress and anxiety because Black women’s pain is not always immediately believed by non-Black physicians.

There are also far fewer Black healthcare providers.

According to Lester, “Black female doctors have to deal with student loans, [a] limited amount of Black peers, and non-Black doctors who don’t understand you and [treat you] unfairly.”

This connects to the social determinants of education and economic stability. Since there’s a higher possibility that Black families are unable to provide generational wealth, Black medical students are faced with taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

Even when we have access to healthcare, Black people still don’t have what we need to thrive.

Black communities can thrive

There have been notable Black neighborhoods that achieved equitable health outcomes and thriving communities.

Seneca Village (ironically where Christian Cooper was harassed) was a thriving working class Black neighborhood in the 1820s, located in what’s now Central Park. It was demolished when white people living in lower Manhattan wanted parks like Paris and London.

The Greenwood District, aka The Black Wall Street, was a thriving neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Black-owned banks, grocery stores, hotels, and movie theaters were abundant until the city was deliberately burned down by an angry white mob.

They murdered 300 Black people and left 9,000 people homeless. Ordinances were passed so the Black community could never rebuild.

We are shown again and again that we can’t have the same or equal treatment to white people in America.

Black people deserve humanity, equality, and a chance to live healthy, fulfilled lives in this country.

Why is it we live in a country that doesn’t see us as human?

What you can do to help

This is where you come in.

BLACK HISTORY, BLACK JOY

Allyship is not just for white people. Allyship is important for Black people, too.

It’s important Black people learn our history not only for context but to understand the power we have and how to support one another.

Equally important is reconnecting to joy.

Take care of yourself first, or as Dr. Lester says “give from the overflow.” Advocacy and education in the workplace and at home can be exhausting.

Make sure you create healthy boundaries and feel comfortable educating a non-Black person or have a statement ready when you prefer not to.

Although stigma exists in the Black community around mental health, it’s especially important for Black people to take care of their mental health needs. The added stressors of being a Black person in America can have a major impact on health and well-being.

FROM ALLIES TO ACCOMPLICES

For non-Black people, you can become an ally by learning the ways you can support the Black community.

Allyship is the first step toward becoming an accomplice, or a person who knows how their privilege adds to the oppression of Black people. An accomplice does the work without having to be called out.

First, you can do the work to learn about current and historical social inequities toward Black people. Take the time to educate yourself about these realities. You can get started with the resources below.

FOR EMPLOYERS

If you’re an employer, you can check out my blog post for in-depth tips on how to support Black employees and stand for anti-racism.

SUPPORT 1619

The 1619 Project was developed by The New York Times Magazine to re-examine the 400-year anniversary, history, and aftermath of slavery in the United States.

Its goal is to put American history under the microscope by asking: What if 1619 was the birth year of the United States?

The project contains the history of the modern day social determinants of health for Black Americans.

GET EDUCATED

Check out this list of anti-racism resources put together by the Fight for Breonna Taylor movement. It includes organizations to support, books to read, movies to watch, and more.

LEARN THE TERMS

So you want to talk about… is an Instagram account that creatively and clearly dissects progressive politics and social issues using graphic slideshows. It’s a great starting point for quick introductions to complex concepts like white supremacy, white fragility, microaggressions, and intersectionality.

Second, write down what the social determinants of health look like for you. Are they the same as the Black people you know, or different? How do they compare to the average social determinants of Black people nationwide?

Do you have parks in your neighborhood? Can you take public transportation to work if you need to? Where is the closest grocery store?

Last, identify how you’re benefiting from the structures in place that cause institutional and systemic inequities in Black communities. For example, do you live in fear of the police? Can you walk around retail stores without being followed?

Take the time to learn how to become more aware of your privilege. Once you recognize that all people don’t share these privileges, you can stand up and speak out so that they can.

Everyone deserves a chance to live a long, healthy, and equitable life. As it stands now, Black people don’t have what they need for a fair chance at living.

This is why Black Lives Matter.


Akilah Cadet, DHSc, MPH, works with tech companies, nonprofits, retail, and small businesses to assure diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies that support Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), women, and marginalized communities in the workplace. As a Black woman, she uses her personal and professional experiences to inspire her anti-racism work, including coaching, strategy, facilitation, and organizational change. She’s proud to live in Oakland, CA, has a rare heart condition, and is a proud Beyoncé advocate. Follow her here.