The Racial Health Gap

A look inside a health care system that continues to breed racial inequality


| May 3, 2007


We all know that health care in the United States is in crisis. Some 40 million people currently go without insurance. And the 'lucky' among us who are insured contend with a dizzying labyrinth of paperwork and daunting costs. Such are the flashpoints cited by politicians on the campaign trail, when they manage to toss off a few lines about health care. The widening racial disparities that exist within America's health care system rarely get a mention.

Conventional thinking would suggest that economic factors play the biggest role in determining the quality of health care. But according to renowned sociologist David Williams, in an interview with the American Prospect, socioeconomic factors can best be understood when looking at race, too. As an example, Williams states that when it comes to many health care indicators, such as infant mortality rates and birth weight, 'the best-off African Americans are doing more poorly than the worst-off whites.'

This disparity in health care amounts to a kind of 'new racism' that dates back to the civil rights era, says Tarso Luis Ramos, research director of Political Research Associates, quoted by Kai Wright in the magazine ColorLines. Ramos argues that conservative politicos are trying to institutionalize racism in health care by claiming the system should be 'colorblind.' The idea, according to Ramos, is to 'naturaliz[e] these disparities, so that society itself bears no responsibility.'

As an example, Wright points to a 2003 federal report -- the National Healthcare Disparities Report. A leaked draft of that document explains that the report 'clearly demonstrates that racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities are national problems.' But when the report was filtered through the office of then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thomson (now a candidate for president), the language was watered down to say 'while most Americans receive exceptional quality of health care? some socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic differences exist.'

In the upcoming presidential elections, politicians will undoubtedly continue to posture on health care. Meanwhile the racial disparity in health care continues to widen. In the interview with the American Prospect, Williams states that the black infant death rate is currently 2.4 times higher than that of whites. These inequalities, according to Williams, 'are harming not just the health of the individual but the society more broadly.'

Go there >> Health in Black and White