On March 26th, 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King stated that, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.” Disturbingly, 55 years later, his words still ring true. Louisiana consistently ranks in the bottom 50 when it comes to health outcomes. Much of what keeps our state at the bottom of national rankings can be explained by racial disparities in health. African Americans are less likely to have access to healthcare services and more likely to live in neighborhoods and communities that may not have access to healthy food, clean air, safe and walkable streets and parks. Research on the stress created by racism from the American Psychological Association demonstrates that racism has a direct and harmful effect on African Americans’ health.
Data from the Louisiana Department of Health by race and ethnicity show that white men will live 10% longer than black men and white women will live nearly 7% longer than black women in our state.
From birth to untimely death, African Americans bear the heavy burden of poor health. Many of us believe that our health is completely within our control. If we eat right, exercise, and get preventative health care, we will live a long and healthy life. Healthy lifestyle habits and choices play a role in health. However, research indicates that only 20% of our health is impacted by our individual choices. The other 80% is determined by “social determinants” including where you live, work, learn and play. Health outcomes vary across zip codes, income, education, employment, and race. Historical injustices from slavery to Jim Crow segregation, mass incarceration, and current social unrest impact African American health.
If we want to see better health outcomes, we have to make strategic investments in high quality health care services in underserved neighborhoods in health centers like Our Community Health. We also have to be laser focused on addressing the social determinants of health. We need to ensure that all of our neighbors have access to high quality education, healthy food, safe and walkable neighborhoods, and economic opportunity. I believe we can move our state from the bottom ranks through perseverance and strategic action that directly address the inequalities in our state. Now is the time. We cannot look back 55 years from now and wonder why there are persistent inequalities in health. We know what to do and we have the opportunity and responsibility to act.