Posted November 14, 2019 in Articles
Author: Jarvis DeBerry, cleveland.com
In Cuyahoga County, black babies are far more likely than white babies to die before their first birthday. Half the babies born in Cuyahoga County in 2018 were white, according to First Year Cleveland, a community movement formed to address one of the country’s highest infant mortality rates. But of the 118 babies who died in their first year, 67 percent of them were black.
Those numbers aren’t shocking to anybody who’s paid attention to the county’s infant mortality statistics, the country’s infant mortality statistics or to the glaring racial disparities those local and national statistics typically reveal. But the numbers are shameful. The most powerful country on Earth shouldn’t be losing so many newborns. And black babies shouldn’t be dying more than white ones.
But as Margaret Mitchell, CEO and president of the Greater Cleveland YWCA, said recently to reporters and editors from cleveland.com, we have been conditioned to accept black suffering as normal. We ought to be alarmed and outraged, but Mitchell argues that we’ve mostly shrugged.
“We look at infant mortality and we nod our heads,” she said. “It’s a sign of normalization. That we are not all jumping up, screaming, demanding to do something.... We have reached crisis levels and yet somehow we can only whisper, ‘Is it time to declare racism a public health crisis?’”
It’s time to declare it – and loudly. Exhibit A is the disparity in the infant mortality numbers, which local experts attribute to a toxic stress caused by racism.
Katrice Cain, racial disparities program director for First Year Cleveland, said, “The toxic stress is coming from the lived experience, from African-American experiences taken place over 400 years. We know that the mother is the environment for the fetus so our community is the environment for her. What she experiences on a day-to-day basis is going to impact her child.”
First Year Cleveland stresses that the black babies who die are “from all socioeconomic levels.” That’s an important point to make. Most people would probably guess that black women who lose babies have less money or education than their white counterparts, but research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long shown that black mothers with advanced professional degrees – such as JDs and MDs – have worse birth outcomes than white mothers who stopped school in 8th grade.
It is doubtful that black attorneys and black physicians are exhibiting less concern for their babies than white women who dropped out of junior high, and it’s equally doubtful that those professionals have less money for quality pre-natal care. Genetics doesn’t seem to be the culprit because African and Caribbean women who move to the U.S. and later give birth have better birth outcomes than native-born black women, but when those immigrants’ daughters grow up in the U.S., they give birth to sicker babies than their mothers did.
Because they haven’t been able to blame low incomes, lack of education or genetics, many of the nation’s infant mortality researchers have hypothesized that a stress related to racism is the best explanation for native-born black women’s infant mortality numbers. That hypothesis is supported by research that shows that – in a reverse of how it plays out for white mothers -- black teenagers lose fewer babies to death than black women in their 20s. The thinking is that teenagers, by virtue of having lived a shorter amount of time, have experienced less racism than adults.
A society that, as Mitchell says, has normalized black suffering isn’t likely to easily accept the First Year Cleveland’s argument that racism kills. Even though there’s abundant proof that it does.
When Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, died at 68 last month, Ibram X. Kendi, director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, argued in The Atlantic that “there may be no more consequential white privilege than life itself.” And, Kendi writes, “The inverse of white privilege is black deprivation.” That deprivation is even evident among the subset of black folks who – like Cummings – manage to do well.
Just like white women with far less education have better birth outcomes than black women with professional degrees, sociologist David R. Williams has found that white people whose educations end with high school live longer than black people with college degrees or more.
But it all starts with the babies.
If racism is a major driver of that disparity, then First Year Cleveland’s goal to “reduce all infant deaths and have no racial inequities in infant deaths by the end of 2025” seems impossible. Because it’s inconceivable that racism will be eradicated in the next six years.
But better treatment of black expectant mothers by doctors and nurses is an achievable goal. A survey of Cuyahoga County mothers reveals that black and Hispanic women aren’t listened to or shown the same concern their white counterparts are.
Want to keep more babies alive? Listening to their mothers is a start.