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Leading Harvard expert on disparities urges journalists to be a ‘tiny ripple of hope’

Leading Harvard expert on disparities urges journalists to be a ‘tiny ripple of hope’

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Deflated balloons hang from a lamppost where a person was killed in Baltimore, Maryland. Neighborhoods that lack quality schools
Deflated balloons hang from a lamppost where a person was killed in Baltimore, Maryland. Neighborhoods that lack quality schools, safe playgrounds, clean air and water, good housing, and access to transportation and health care all contribute to a person’s health and wellbeing, Harvard’s David Williams told reporters this week.
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A prominent Harvard social scientist told a group of reporters Monday that they have a vital role to play in helping reduce the types of health disparities that have caused people of color to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

“It is my hope that each of you would commit the rest of your career to being a tiny ripple of hope, to make a difference in telling this story in ways that connect, so that we can build the political will to address the challenges of racial inequities in health,” said David R. Williams, chair of the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Williams was speaking at the 2020 National Fellowship this week, which is being held virtually this year due to the pandemic.

Black Americans are 2.3 times more likely than whites to die from COVID-19, data has shown. Williams said that he and other researchers who study health inequities have not been surprised by these numbers. “Similar disparities … exist for all the leading causes of death in the United States,” he said.

The trend starts at infancy. African American babies are twice as likely to die before their first birthday as white infants, he noted.

While the chasm in life expectancies between Blacks and whites has lessened over time, Williams said, that progress has been slow. “If we were to freeze the life expectancy of whites … it will take about 30 years for African Americans to close the gap,” he said.

He called socioeconomic status the “single biggest predictor of variations in health in the world.” In other words, the higher your income and education, the lower your risk of premature death.

He cited research showing that for every dollar of wealth that whites have, Blacks have 10 cents, Latinos have 12 cents and other races have 38 cents.

“When you have no wealth, you’re one paycheck away from being homeless. You’re one paycheck away from not being able to feed your children,” he said.

He noted that poorer Americans tend to have jobs that can’t be done from home during the pandemic. A study in New York City found that the majority of essential workers were people of color.

“There’s something else about race that still matters after you’ve taken income and education into account. Could racism be a critical missing piece of the puzzle to understanding these racial inequities in health?”

Education also factors into a person’s health status, Williams pointed out, with college graduates having an average life expectancy several years longer than people with only a high school diploma.

But racial disparities still hold. He noted that an African American with a college degree still has a shorter life expectancy than a white American who only graduated high school.

“There’s something else about race that still matters after you’ve taken income and education into account,” he said. “Could racism be a critical missing piece of the puzzle to understanding these racial inequities in health?”

He believes residential segregation is one of the greatest drivers of these health disparities. He calls it “a striking legacy of racism” that is as “American as apple pie,” having been supported by institutions like banks and the federal government.

Many Black neighborhoods lack quality schools, safe playgrounds, clean air and water, good housing, and access to transportation and health care, he noted. All these factors contribute to a person’s health and wellbeing.

“In public health today, many researchers say your ZIP code is a stronger predictor of how long and well you’ll live than your genetic code,” Williams said, noting that in some cities the life expectancy gaps from one ZIP code to another are as great as 25 years.

Exposure to air pollution, for example, can cause asthma and hypertension, Williams said, both of which increase a person’s risk of dying from COVID-19.

Research from Diversitydatakids.org found that more than two-thirds of Black children in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. live in low opportunity neighborhoods, compared to one in five whites and Asians.

Williams calls this a “system that was carefully crafted” and that is “functioning exactly as planned.”

“We are fooling ourselves by tearing down monuments, for example, if we don’t unpack and counter these powerful mechanisms of racism and structural racism that exist in the United States,” he said.

He noted that Black Americans are more likely to be arrested for a drug-related crime, get pulled over by police, pay more for bail, have trouble getting an apartment, not get promoted at work, wait longer to vote, and receive poor medical care. They also deal with acts of “everyday discrimination,” like being treated with less courtesy and respect, receiving poorer service, and being most likely to be perceived as scary and dishonest.

“We are fooling ourselves by tearing down monuments, for example, if we don’t unpack and counter these powerful mechanisms of racism and structural racism that exist in the United States.”

“Racial discrimination gives rise to stress,” which has been shown to have negative health consequences, Williams said.

Williams outlined some potential solutions: providing high-quality health care to every individual, diversifying the health care workforce, addressing the social determinants of health rather than just medical problems, investing more in early childhood, creating “communities of opportunity.”

Here’s where journalists come in.

“Most Americans don’t know racial inequities even exist,” Williams said.

Reporters can help raise awareness about these issues, he said, and, by telling diverse and compelling stories of real lives, help close the “empathy gap” that people often have for groups different from their own.

Williams quoted the civil rights icon John Lewis, who died Friday: “I need journalists who are not afraid to make some noise and who can get in ‘good trouble’ by telling the stories of the plights of the disadvantaged in a way that connects with people.”

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