In 1981, the African American midwife described one of her most heartbreaking deliveries. As we talked we sat under a big pecan tree in the front yard of a remodeled farm house near Americus, Georgia, she explained that she had been called for an emergency delivery from a young, black woman living far out in the countryside. The baby boy came too fast, but was alive, if underweight. The young mother was stable, but the midwife was frightened for the baby. She told the mother’s father that they would have to take the infant to a hospital, then she cradled the baby between her breasts trying to keep the infant warm.
They hurried to the nearest hospital, which turned them away because even in an emergency, they wouldn’t take black patients. They rushed to another hospital, which told them the same thing. The only other African American option was in another county. On their way to that hospital, the baby died. The young mother at home was distraught when she heard the news.
The first two hospitals were recipients of government Hill-Burton funds, which required the hospitals to not discriminate on race, but it did allow “separate but equal” facilities. The Supreme Court struck down this practice in 1963, but its implementation didn’t come in time to save the baby boy.
Racial and ethnic health disparities still exist. According to the CDC, in 2002, blacks who died from HIV disease had approximately 11 times as many age-adjusted years of potential life lost before age 75 years as non-Hispanic whites. Because of homicide blacks had nine times as many years of potential life lost than non-Hispanic whites, three times as many years lost from stroke, three times as much from newborn death, and three times as many from diabetes. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 30% of Hispanic and 20% of flack Americans lack a usual source of healthcare compared with less than 16 percent of whites.
Disparities in health care are often ascribed to differences in income and access to insurance, which are the result of structural inequality in the United States. But other factors also matter. For example, a study with physicians which used actors portraying similar economic backgrounds, found that black women were significantly less likely than white men to be recommended for referral, despite reporting the same symptoms.
When I began graduate school in history in 1990 in order to get a PhD, I went with the specific desire to understand the structural inequalities in the U.S. How did racism begin? What benefits do whites get as a group? How does being female fit with class and racial or ethnic difference?
I learned that in the 17th century, racism was invented among Europe and its colonies in order to ensure a cheap, non-free labor supply. In the United States, blacks became marked as slaves, and all sorts of personal prejudices developed to accompany the stigma of that label. Many of the prejudices had to deal with sexuality.
African Americans were enslaved for two hundred years, then after the end of slavery, Jim Crow–a labor system of rigid segregation–was enacted in the South. That only ended in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed and in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act. So African Americans only have been really free for 47 years.
Sojomail, 1-26-12. explains that blacks were prevented from participating in the two major programs that developed the white middle class, the Homestead Act of 1862 and the WW11 GI Bill. The result was that the median wealth of white U.S. households in 2009 was $113,149, compared with $5,677 for blacks and $6,325 for Latinos.”
That little baby which the midwife tried so hard to save had centuries of history blocking him from the hospital emergency ward. All those years of injustice suffocated the life out of his little body. I never forgot that baby’s death.