Black people in Rochester and the Finger Lakes Region are sicker and live shorter lives due to racial bias in housing, education, employment, criminal justice and other areas, a new report from Common Ground Health shows.
“Structural racism is literally stealing the breath from the Black community,” said Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground, the region’s health research and planning organization. “It is behind the deplorably higher rates of COVID infections and mortality for Black people; behind higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and asthma; behind more Black mothers dying in childbirth and more Black men dying of violence, sometimes at the hands of those charged with protecting their lives.”
“The Color of Health: The Devastating Toll of Racism” connects racial bias with the 67 percent higher premature mortality rate for African Americans in the region.
“To improve health for Black residents, we need to address what happens in the classroom, on the way to school, on the job and in the home. Health equity strategy must focus beyond the four walls of the medical clinic,” Norwood said.
The researchers found that relative to white residents, African Americans in Rochester and the Finger Lakes are:
• 50 percent more likely to experience life-threatening complications related to childbirth,
• 3 times as likely to have an infant die in its first year of life,
• 6 times as likely to wind up in the emergency room due to asthma,
• 6 times as likely to be admitted to the hospital for hypertension and
• 57 percent more likely to report poor or fair mental health.
Through the first eight months of the pandemic, Black residents of Monroe County were 2.9 times as likely to test positive for coronavirus and 2.6 times as likely to die from the disease.
Combining health data with insights from experts and anecdotal evidence, the report documents how racism, whether deliberate or unintentional, undermines physical and mental wellbeing. It shows how biased practices limit access to well-paying jobs, safe neighborhoods, nutritious food and health care; how segregated neighborhoods and schools limit opportunities that are foundational to a child’s future wealth and health; and how chronic exposure to weathers the mind and body.
“This report highlights the extreme inequities in the health outcomes of Black folks in our community related to racism and will serve as a tool for organizations in the work towards health equity,” said Yvette Conyers, assistant professor at St. John Fisher College and chair of the African American Health Coalition.
The report noted that racial bias across nearly every social determinant of health means “Black Americans were forced to the front lines of a global pandemic with fewer resources to protect themselves, including being less likely to have sick leave, health care and jobs that allowed them to work from home.”
“The promise of healthy lives has eluded far too many for far too long. The undeniable connection between racism and poor health outcomes is a clarion call to action to our community,” said Sebrone Johnson, senior vice president of program operations at the Urban League of Rochester and vice-chair of the African American Health Coalition. “We must continue to illuminate this call in order to eradicate the disease of racism.”
To improve health for Black residents, the study calls for a deeper commitment to policies and programs that eliminate racial disparities, including:
• pushing for racial equity to be a strategic priority for boards of directors and organizational leaders;
• supporting existing anti-racist community initiatives such as the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity (RASE);
• investing in pipeline programs to increase the number of Black doctors and other health care professionals; and
• developing health interventions through a racial equity lens.
“Where people are born, live, learn, work and play all contribute to a person’s health. These conditions, known as social determinants of health, especially when paired with the impacts of structural racism, affect a wide range of health, functioning and quality of life outcomes and risks. Access to high-quality health care is a key step in driving the equity and opportunity all deserve,” said Melissa Gardner, executive vice president, population health engagement at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and Common Ground board member.
The “Color of Health” is the second in a series of health equity studies produced by Common Ground since 2019. The African American Health Coalition guided the focus and recommendations in the report.