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Racism: The Ugly Truth About Black Maternal Health

Racism is a baby killer. This may sound harsh, but unfortunately it’s one of the sobering truths behind our poor birth outcomes and high infant mortality and pregnancy mortality rates. As you may know, according to the CDC, Black women are 3.7 times more likely to die during pregnancy than a white woman and six times more likely to do so in urban areas like New York City and Washington D.C. We are also twice as likely as other women to deliver premature or underweight babies–these deplorable stats aren’t new. But what is painfully true is that neither education or class protects us from these outcomes. Unfortunately, this isn’t new either–this set of data was my inspiration for writing The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy.

In fact, studies of college-educated Black women by the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, the CDC’s 19-member Infant Mortality Commission, and others say that our problems with low-birthweight and premature birth, are more about racism and the stresses of our existence as Black women than just poor medical care. This message is getting lost in the sauce of stereotypes of Black women as poor and not getting prenatal health care. The problem is much deeper.

A few weeks ago, I was honored to attend a conference hosted by Women’s eNews and their African-American Maternal Health Project. The presentations made about the role of race in health disparities and birth outcomes was pretty damn depressing.

Not only does racism affect our quality of care, but the stressors of our day-to-day existence has a “weathering” effect that ages our bodies. Camara Phyllis Jones, M.D, MPH, PhD, Research Director on Social Determinants of Health at the CDC –a truly fierce sister who should be our next Surgeon General if you ask me, led an amazing presentation on her work on the implications of race in health disparities. Dr. Jones showed how this “weathering” effect or accelerated aging was evident nearly across the board in African Americans from pregnancy to hypertension. That is, the average 30-something Black man has high blood pressure rates comparable to a 50 or 60 year old white man.

An upcoming release of Dr. Jones’ work will show that even our perceived race by others (i.e. Black but look white or Latino but look white to others) can produce better health outcomes. Wow! Talk about white privilege!

I can’t help but think of my friend Karen, who was put on a bedrest during her pregnancy and was receiving regular phone call check-ins from a nurse service. Karen always spoke highly of the nurse and the care she was receiving. Due to pregnancy complications, Karen was going to have a C-section and expressed her concerns about this to the nurse, plus the general worries most first-time moms face as they get closer to delivery. Now, Karen is the type of sister who has one of those non-descript voices. You know what I mean. As she shared with the nurse, the nurse responded, “Don’t worry, our babies do fine.” Then added something to the effect of, ‘African American babies are a different story.’ My friend calmly responded, “I don’t know if you’ve read my chart thoroughly but I’m having an African American baby.” Only deafening silence on the phone.

First of all, that woman could have easily lost her job. Secondly, it’s sad that our babies are known to die more often and that this tragedy is mentioned casually in phone conversations. What’s more frightening is thinking about the level of concern and care medical practitioners really give when they know of our higher risks.

Should Karen actually thank the “white-girl voice” she was teased about for years for helping her get attentive care from the biased nurse?

Do you think Black women are given more care because of our known higher risks or less care because of a “what’s the point?” type of sub-conscious thinking… You decide.

And, most importantly, if improving our birth outcomes and saving our babies lives depends on dismantling the racial constructs of the health care and broader system, do our babies even have a real chance? …..

Please let me know your thoughts.

In motherhood,

2 Responses to “Racism: The Ugly Truth About Black Maternal Health”
  1. Upset dad says:

    this is some scarey shit, i have two boys and a girl, one of which has global developmental delay. I’ve always thought racism is the reason they dont have a proper diagnosis for whatever it is he has.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I was aware of the very sad #s regarding health care disparities. I think that we should take our health care much more seriously and DO YOUR RESEARCH before you form this very close relationship. I personally will drive further & pay more if it means that the quality of my care is optimized and provided my someone who has a firm understanding of health disparities and seeks to close this gap. There are a lot of good doctors out there … many of them look like you. I feel so blessed to have prayed, researched, interviewed and finally located and retained a FANTASTIC OB/GYN, and then an AWESOME Pediatrician. We must do our research and ask questions and demand better care; if you don't receive it, leave. Too often we pay for lower quality service, and consistently return. This is in black hair care products, restaurants… the list could go on & on. As long as we continue to provide the demand, there will be no change. DO RESEARCH, DEMAND MORE, AND LEAVE IF YOU DON'T GET IT!! The more of us that do this, the more DRs will feel even more pressure to provide consistently quality care; it's all about the #s; the greenback.

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