5 reports look at causes of health disparities in the U.S.

5 reports look at causes of health disparities in the U.S.

This map of Little Rock, Ark. was issued by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation. Historical records show that the red areas — which were rated as “hazardous” — were neighborhoods home to Black residents. According to population data lined to the map, Black Americans represented at least 30% of the population in some of those areas. Some worked in lumber plants, shops, and private homes as housekeepers, according to archival sources. Click the map for an interactive map showing how this practice, known as “redlining”, led to social vulnerability in those neighborhoods today.
Source: Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed May 10, 2023

Stories about health disparities — even ones about CDC statistics — need context about the social causes that contribute to them. Five academic reports about the history of laws and policies regulating key determinants of health offer those nuances. Critically, these reports expose how intentionally discriminatory legislation and regulation in housing, education, employment and other areas have influenced poor health outcomes in Americans of color — and may continue to for many years.

These articles are a good resource  for reporters because they include historical context about local, state and national regulations going back at least 100 years. The authors also expose how business leaders who held racist and bigoted views designed discriminatory industry practices. And they also discuss how business owners or their representatives collaborated with legislators and policymakers to design laws and policies that denied Black, Hispanic and other people of color access to home loans, quality schools and better-paying jobs.

Together, the reports provide a comprehensive collection of studies, history books, oral archives and other resources about the topics they cover. Those sources can help you develop stories about current and future national, state and local public health trends.

Below you’ll find some of the research findings, public health trends and nuances that caught our attention from these reports. The authors include sociologists, criminal justice experts, and education policy researchers.

  • COVID-19 research suggests that the life expectancy gap between white and some Americans of color has widened. In this study, for instance, the researchers said that the estimated drop in life expectancy in Black and Latino Americans relative to their white peers was less significant in 2021 than in 2020, it exposes “another year of pronounced racial/ethnic inequities underlying an even more severe overall impact.”
  • Although the infant mortality rate among white and Black children dropped dramatically in the 20th century, by 2017 Black infants were much more likely than their white peers to die than they were more than 100 years earlier.
  • Studies that compare the quality of health of Black people in the U.S. and Black people in some African countries have shown that the latter have lower rates of chronic illness than white Americans. The authors say those findings suggest that “racial health disparities are mostly the result of circumstances of American Black lives and the institutions that shape them, rather than genetics or shared ancestry.”
  • Current housing disparities in the South can be traced in part to the discriminatory laws that targeted Black Americans after the Civil War, as well as the violence endured by them in the decades that followed. In the cities, fearing violent behavior from unwelcoming white neighbors, many Black people who moved there from southern states “packed into older neighborhoods while housing shortages forced residents to double-up in subdivided rooms and rented kitchenettes.”
  • Health disparities in cities and towns around the country may be linked to discriminatory housing ordinances that were passed more than 100 years ago under the pretext of curbing the spread of infectious diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis.

In the reports, presented in March in a symposium organized by Columbia Journalism School’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights, the academics also take journalists to task for perpetuating inaccurate explanations for the causes of social and health inequality in this country, as well as harmful stereotypes of Americans of color. To avoid that, the researchers suggest that:

  • Journalists keep their race, ethnic and class biases in check as often as they can.
  • Reporters should be more judicious about the context they chose to include and exclude in their stories.
  • Although writing about “extraordinary acts of state violence,” such as the murder of George Floyd, is important, journalists should consider “the ordinary ways that the criminal justice system and other policing systems harm health and democracy.”