Reckoning with History: The Health Impacts of Racism

Lisa Peyton-Caire

Especially in left-leaning Madison, people may be dumbfounded that Wisconsin is worst in the nation for black infant mortality. While education level (Dane County and Wisconsin have a persistent racial gap in that, too) and economic status do contribute to birth outcomes, even educated, well-off black women are at greater risk to deliver a low birth weight baby—higher even than a white high school drop-out. Low birth weight is one of the top causes of infant mortality.

Genetics don’t explain the gap either. A study of recent African immigrants found similar rates of low birth weight babies as white Americans. After one generation of living in the United States, however, the immigrants’ rate had increased, showing that there’s something about the treatment and lived experience of black women in the U.S. contributing to the problem.

“As institutions we need to understand the root causes of disparities, and I think that’s hard for people to talk about because we have to talk about things like chattel slavery and racism…but we have to talk about it because that’s what’s gotten us here,” says Harambee Village co-founder Tia Murray.

The bias and disparities black women face today and have endured over generations may not only result in worse socio-economic factors, but also in long-term stress affecting their physical health. Black women have disproportionately high rates of heart disease, cancers and other health problems, which can then lead to more risk factors going into pregnancy. Lisa Peyton-Caire, a 2014 BRAVA Woman to Watch, founded the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness and Black Women’s Wellness Day to transform the poor health of the women she saw around her.

To understand why Wisconsin ranks so poorly in measures of racial equity, Peyton-Caire turns to history. “The Midwest has a very unique history when it comes to race,” she says. Compared to the South or East Coast, African-Americans haven’t been here for as long, or in as high of numbers to have a powerful collective presence, she explains. “It’s very different in other areas of the country where African-American families and individuals have had greater access to the tools, resources and influence needed to build their capacity to be more stable and thriving.” Changing the statistics on black birth outcomes may require changing deep-rooted systemic inequalities. “Until we figure out how to create an equitable environment for black families to live, we’re going to continue to talk about disparities,” Peyton-Caire says.


Read our feature story on “Empowering Mothers and Saving Babies” here.

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