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Let’s Talk About The Health Equity “Elephant” in the Room

Let’s Talk About The Health Equity “Elephant” in the Room

Kori Lannaman
Jul 06, 2021

My skin color affects everything about my livelihood, even my quality of life and health status, just as it does for people who look like me. See what I mean here.

Yeah, that “elephant.” People experience different outcomes because of their skin color.

Do you see how best friends Jennie and Mary Anne were both diagnosed with breast cancer but had completely different health outcomes? On one hand, Jennie lives in a nice area, where she can easily get medical care; healthy, affordable foods; and reliable transportation. Mary Anne doesn’t live in a good area or have those choices, which probably means she won’t live as long as her best friend. Does that seem fair? Your zip code is the biggest indicator of health. It can determine if you live long after your cancer diagnosis or die early – and every stage in between. One’s quality of life is strongly influenced by the ability to live and grow in a quality environment.

Health care should not be a privilege. We should have an equal chance at life and lifesaving resources no matter our skin color, our ethnicity, our gender, our sexual orientation, or how much money we have. 

Health Stats

Take a look at some cold hard facts showing the differences in cancer outcomes just by race.

  • American Indian and Alaskan Native people have much higher rates of getting several cancers, including lung, colorectal, liver, stomach, and kidney cancers, compared to White people in the United States. See here.
  • African Americans have the highest mortality rate of any racial and ethnic group for all cancers combined and for most major cancers. Death rates for all major causes of death are higher for African Americans than for non-Hispanic whites. See here.
  • Although Hispanic populations typically experience lower cancer rates than the non-Hispanic white population, cancer remains the leading cause of death among Hispanic individuals in the United States with higher rates of cervical, liver, and stomach cancer. See here.

Why do these disparities exist? Does this mean that these populations are less healthy than White Americans? That they are just born that way? Or does it have something to do with other factors?

The Bottom Line

We all know that fresh fruits and vegetables are often expensive – plus you need grocery stores in your area that actually carry good produce. Did you know a lot of Black neighborhoods are considered “food deserts?” Unfortunately, if you’re making minimum wage, you can’t afford the “healthiest” meals. You also can’t give your family something that doesn’t make them feel full, especially if they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And what if you work in a job that doesn’t have sick time? You may lose money by going to get a cancer screening, especially if you had to take multiple buses to get there and back. Do you see how these inequalities are woven into the system? Behavioral factors, such as frequently smoking or eating red meat, do play a role. But ask yourself: Have you noticed how Black communities are papered in cigarette ads and billboards? There are 10 times the amount of cigarette ads in a Black neighborhood than in a White one.

We also know that stressed people smoke more. So is it any wonder Black people use tobacco? That’s systemic racism. And that’s the result of deliberate actions and even laws, such as the legacy of redlining, disproportionate school funding, and even a law that wouldn’t allow people in trades dominated by Black people to unionize. That deliberately withheld lack of opportunity caused a health and wealth gap that affects where we live and work today. So that’s why we say  place matters when it comes to health. And while this list does not even begin to address ALL the issues surrounding health care, it does serve as a start.

Call to Action

Racism is so embedded in the systems of power, we might not even realize a lot of things happening around us are racist. That’s because it’s systemic. There’s that word again. Systemic means that the roots of racism run deep. It affects your health, your access to medical care, your quality of treatment, and even how your doctors talk to you! While you might not be the one who is exploiting communities, you should be able to call out acts of injustice whenever you see them

Let’s do our best to commit to fighting against health inequities, by donating, advocating for health equity, or being informed about the disparities faced by other groups of people. Find out more ways to take action!

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