NAACP meet: health crisis is civil rights issue

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – “Our local leaders are national leaders because they are solving the nation’s problems,” Angela Glover Blackwell, social and economic equality advocate, told the NAACP’s 101st National Convention here July 10.

Blackwell, who founded and heads the advocacy group PolicyLink, spoke at a health symposium titled “Health Care is a Social Justice Issue – A True Civil Right.” She said, “We need to lift up what works. We need to use innovative strategies that inform policy. We need to create the conditions that allow people to reach their full potential, especially our children.”

Too many “practical barriers stand in the way” of building a “fully inclusive society,” Blackwell said.

For example, “Where we live affects our opportunities,” she said. “Where we live affects our health.”

In fact, she added, “Our neighborhoods are designed for disease.”

“The crises of heart disease, diabetes, asthma and obesity in our communities are very real,” Blackwell continued.

Childhood obesity is a special problem within communities of color. Nearly 35 percent of African American children and 38 percent of Mexican American children are overweight or obese, compared with 30.7 percent of white children. Overall, 32 percent of all children and teenagers (ages 2 to 19) are obese or significantly overweight.

“For the first time in history children are not expected to live as long as their parents,” she said. “We are fighting for the lives of a whole generation of children. Childhood obesity is a failure of policy.”

Blackwell suggested that children should “find a balance between eating healthy and physical activity.” She noted the prevalence of fast food restaurants in communities of color and added, “In some communities it is easier for a kid to get a gun than a fresh vegetable.”

“Fifty percent of African American communities don’t have access to neighborhood grocery stores,” Blackwell said. Additionally, “24 percent of African Americans don’t have access to a car,” making it almost impossible to get fresh fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, who directs research on social determinants of health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed, and added, “Racism is a fundamental cause of health disparities in the black community.”

According to Dr. Jones, “Racism is a systemic, not individual, moral flaw.”

She said, “There are three levels of racism: the institutional, the personally mediated and the internalized.”

Institutional racism creates disparities in access to goods, services and opportunities. Personally mediated racism, she said, creates assumptions about abilities, motives and intentions of others. And internalized racism creates an acceptance by stigmatized races of negative messages about ability and intrinsic worth.

Jones summed up the situation by saying, “The initial historical insult – the kidnapping, importation and enslavement of Africans – still has an impact on the social-economic status of African Americans. Contemporary institutional racism perpetuates the initial historical insult.”

She added, “African Americans need the power to decide, the power to act and the power to control resources.”

Blackwell said, “Equity is defined as just and fair inclusion. Equity is the only way our country will achieve what it aspires to be.”

Dr. Willarda Edwards, president of the National Medical Association, talked about the near absence of African American doctors. She said, “African Americans make up only 3 percent of the total number of doctors in this country.”

Currently, there are only about 32,400 African American doctors, and over 500,000 white doctors.

Edwards said, “It is important for African Americans to see other folks of color in the health professions.”

Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told the symposium, “We need to make the connection between the environment and health. The truth is that every one of these diseases – heart disease, asthma, diabetes, obesity – are linked to environmental causes.”

Jackson added, “We need green, clean jobs in the African American community. We demand them because we understand their connection to our health.”

Photo: Angela Glover Blackwell speaks at the NAACP symposium. At right is Dr. Camara Jones of the Centers for Disease Control. (PW/Tony Pecinovsky)



Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the president of the St. Louis Workers' Education Society (WES), a 501c3 non-profit organization chartered by the St. Louis Central Labor Council as a Workers Center. His articles have been published in the St. Louis Labor Tribune, Alternet, Shelterforce, Political Affairs, and Z-Magazine, among other publications. He is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA," and is available to speak at your community center, union hall or campus.