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Baltimore tragedy elicits smart reporting on health disparities

Baltimore tragedy elicits smart reporting on health disparities

Picture of Marice Ashe

On April 25, 2015, six days after Freddie Gray died in police custody, Baltimore residents took to the streets. Fed up with pervasive police brutality and enraged by Gray’s death following his arrest, they protested the racism, prejudice, and mistrust festering in our nation’s political and legal institutions. They marched to show their community’s strength and resilience, and to fight discrimination and disenfranchisement. And they shed light on the injustice of Gray’s death and how he died, one of many incidents that suggest a broader devaluation of African American lives.

But Gray’s life appears to have been devalued long before his untimely death. Like so many in West Baltimore, Gray did not have access to the resources he needed to have a healthy and fulfilling life. Factors entirely out of Gray’s control — where he lived and the opportunities he lacked — affected his prospects for a healthy life. The same is true for many others growing up in similar neighborhoods across the nation.

Gray’s death and the protests it triggered have brought to the surface health-related issues that have been left unaddressed for generations. In the wake of the Baltimore protests, ThinkProgress published an article that looked at the unhealthy housing issues, namely lead-based paint exposure, that Gray and his family battled long before his fatal encounter with the police. And a New York Times article examined health disparities in West Baltimore, and how those inequities fueled the frustration expressed during the protests. These stories linked seemingly different phenomena — racism, community level violence, and health — into seamless narratives. They focused on the health inequities that have existed in Baltimore for decades, showing how years of neglect have crippled West Baltimore economies, fostered distrust and violence, and put a long, healthy life entirely out of reach for many residents, Gray included.

Here are three areas where health disparities show up most strongly:

Access: Poor health often isn’t a choice. When people don’t have safe places to be physically active, good quality housing, or healthy and affordable food, their health suffers. As we turn the lens of public health on our own communities, we can ask: Where are the grocery stores and parks located? Where are there safe sidewalks and bike lanes? Many of these healthy resources are notably absent in low-income communities and communities of color, so unhealthy options are the only options that remain. This is not just a public health problem — it’s a profound injustice. As one aggrieved West Baltimore resident explained in the Times’ story, “We were marching for a rec center, we were marching for schools. We were marching for jobs.”

Exposure: Exposure comes in many forms. Exposure to something as seemingly innocuous as soda or tobacco advertising, which we know targets low-income people, can actually affect purchasing choices. Further, people can be exposed to toxins, such as lead or radon, in their homes. These unhealthy exposures prompt certain questions: Where are the billboards in our communities, and what do they advertise? What types of signs are displayed on local store windows? Where has lead exposure been lessened, and where has it been ignored? This issue touched Gray directly. Gray and his two sisters were exposed to toxic lead-based paint in their childhood home, leaving them with blood lead levels nearly double Maryland’s minimum for lead poisoning. They’re not unique. More than 300,000 children nationwide are annually found to have unsafe lead levels in their body. And all too often, those children come from low-income African American and Latino families.

Outcomes: The Times’ article noted a sobering truth: In one West Baltimore neighborhood, the life expectancy for residents is 68 years — 10 years below the national average. Communities of color struggle with higher rates of chronic disease as well as fatal and nonfatal violence. These are predictable health outcomes of policies that allow unhealthy environments to proliferate. What are the life expectancies in different neighborhoods of our cities? Lamenting the fact that residents in Baltimore’s African American communities too often die prematurely, Bishop Douglas Miles of Northeast Baltimore said, “If the statistics that are present in these communities were present in any white community in Baltimore, it would be declared a state of emergency.”

Where poverty, discrimination, and police brutality are commonplace, health inequities are present, too. They are connected to forces that have historically kept poor communities of color economically and socially disenfranchised. A focus on health disparities can provide a fresh approach to thinking about the historical legacy of race and class. Smart reporting can, and should, use the lens of public health to further the national conversation about racism, its effects, and how they might be reversed.

[Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.]

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