Like many across the United States, I was angered this past fall when I heard a grand jury hadn't indicted the policeman who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. When another jury failed to indict the policeman who choked Eric Garner to death in New York, I was outraged. That week I joined with thousands in the streets of Boston to protest. I was inspired by the size and passion of the crowd. But as I looked around I was also a little disappointed; I saw far fewer familiar faces from Boston’s large public health community there than I’d hoped.
As the U.S. pauses to remember Martin Luther King this week, it’s worth remembering that those of us who are working for health justice—for equal access to health care as a basic human right—also have an obligation to stand with those who fight against racial injustice. Health injustice is inextricably bound up with racial injustice. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the average black adult in the U.S is 8 times more likely to die of AIDS than a non-hispanic white adult (1). The average black woman is two and a half times more likely to die during pregnancy, and she is 40% more likely to die of breast cancer. Black children are two times more likely to die as infants, three times as likely to die of asthma, and 30% more likely to attempt suicide as high schoolers (2).
And, of course, beyond the statistics, all of us have witnessed or heard stories of how racial injustice and health injustice are interlinked. A few months ago, I heard the story of a black woman whose grandmother had grown up in the south under Jim Crow. When her grandmother was a young girl, her family got into a severe car accident. Most of the family was okay, but one of her grandmother’s brothers was badly hurt. The family rushed him to the nearest hospital, which happened to be a white hospital. The family brought him, bleeding, to the door of the hospital, but because he was black he wasn’t allowed to enter. Not knowing what else to do, they asked if they could at least get a packet of blood to try and save him. The staff refused. Within the hour he died on the steps of the hospital.
Today, such an explicit denial of health care based on race might not happen. But on a population level it still does. Stopping the expansion of Medicaid
in many states, for example, severely affects people of color (3).
It’s been heartening to see others who also recognize this link between race and health speak out. Medical students, for example, organized a national day of die-ins
to protest the jury decisions in Ferguson and New York. The health group I advocate with, Article 25
, has made anti-oppression one of the core pillars of our work, recognizing that without addressing injustices based on race or gender we can never have a true right to health. But we need a lot more of us out there—and in much greater force. This fight, like all fights for social justice, won’t be won by those standing on the sidelines, but by those who join in.
In recent months, many in our movement have joined in to another fight: stopping the plague of Ebola. From coordinating medical responses to combatting fear-mongering by politicians, the plague has brought together everyone from doctors to AIDS activists to stand with those affected by the disease. Hopefully our movement will bring the same commitment in standing with those who fight the plague of racial injustice as well.