The other day, I went for a jog in Forest Park, as I often do when I need to offload some stress.
In my last mile, I crossed paths with a young Black man who was also jogging. We exchanged a nod. As I continued on, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was also jogging to relieve stress. I thought about how lucky I am, as a 40-year-old white woman, to be able to lace up my sneakers and hit the road without thinking twice.
I thought about Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was shot to death in February by a former police officer turned district attorney investigator and his son while jogging in broad daylight. His “crime”? He looked like a man who’d been captured on security cameras breaking into a neighborhood property. Then I thought about George Floyd, who begged for his life for nearly 9 minutes as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and ultimately killed him. I thought about the city I love, still suffering from unresolved trauma related to racial injustice.
Like many Americans, I’m saddened and appalled by these (and countless other) acts of violence against Black men and women. I could never possibly understand what it must feel like to fear going for a jog, or to fear brutality from the men and women who are supposed to protect us. But I will listen and empathize and try my best to learn.
However, I will say very firmly that everyone deserves the opportunity to live their healthiest life. Like violence against Black men and women in the name of law, health disparities are symptoms of systemic racism. And, as the American Academy of Pediatrics tweeted on May 31, “racism is a public health issue.”
Systemic Racism and Public Health
I can assure you that I’m not drifting out of my lane. Before I owned a gym, I worked as an inpatient dietitian at several local hospitals. But before becoming a dietitian was even on my radar, I worked in public health. For nearly 3 years, I had the amazing opportunity to direct a nutrition community outreach program at a local university, aimed at reducing obesity and malnutrition risk among low-income St. Louis seniors.
I saw Black men and women wait to seek medical care until they were in very poor health due to lack of health insurance and a fear of medical costs. I spoke with seniors who lived on soda and packaged snacks because they were shelf-stable and affordable, and others who lacked safe access to grocery stores with healthier options because they were at high risk of falling and lived in neighborhoods with poorly maintained sidewalks. I witnessed fear and mistrust of medical professionals. I watched one woman cry because she depended on her son for food, but he’d been imprisoned for several days due to unpaid parking tickets and she didn’t know when she’d see him next.
I could go on for an hour. My point is, everyone deserves to be healthy. Unfortunately, Black men, women, and children aren’t given the same opportunities to do that, largely due to long-standing systems that make it more difficult for them to live their best lives. The CDC has a great writeup of some of these injustices here, and I’d highly encourage you to read it.
“Recognizing that many who serve in law enforcement are committed to justice, the violence inflicted by police in news headlines today must be understood in relation to larger social and economic arrangements that put individuals and populations in harm’s way leading to premature illness and death,” they wrote in part. “Police violence is a striking reflection of our American legacy of racism — a system that assigns value and structures opportunity while unfairly advantaging some and disadvantaging others based on their skin color.”
Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld and president Dr. Patrice Harris, American Medical Association, in a statement issued May 29, 2020.
As for my personal experiences of witnessing health disparities in action, you don’t have to take my word for it—there are plenty of data on the topic. Here are just a few facts that highlight racial health disparities:
- Black men and women ages 35-64 are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than white people of the same age.
- Black adults are up to 9 times more likely to die from homicide than white adults.
- Black adults (ages 18-49) are twice as likely to die from heart disease than white people.
- Black people are more likely to die of cancer than white people.
- Black adults ages 20-49 are more vulnerable to conditions that typically impact white adults at older ages, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
- Preliminary data from the New York City Department of Health indicate that the mortality rate for confirmed COVID-19 cases were more than twice as high among Black persons than white persons. Pilot data from another study (which has not yet been peer-reviewed) suggest that white patients with COVID-19 symptoms are six times more likely to receive testing and treatment than Black patients with COVID-19 symptoms.
- Black Americans are twice as likely to die from diabetes as White Americans, according to a 2017 report.
- Black Americans disproportionately live in both food deserts and exercise deserts, making it more difficult to adhere to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and also to achieve the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise.
We have to do better. We, as health and fitness professionals, and we as a society.
I’ll admit that I’ve been part of the problem. I’ve witnessed the effects of systemic racism through my job in public health and haven’t done enough to combat it once I left that position. Here’s what I’m going to do now.
- Listen, and educate myself about the public health impacts of systemic racism.
- Volunteer with organizations that promote health and fitness in underserved populations.
- Share more nutrition content focused on improving health for everyone, not just affluent white people.
- Be receptive to feedback and criticism.
- Create a space for respectful dialogue in the gym.
Will you join me?