Racism as the Root Cause of Infant Mortality

FIrst, apologies for being away from posting, but the ISP at my apartment has been intermittent of late (indeed, I’m typing this post really quickly and saving often, in the hopes that the ISP doesn’t crash again before I can click “publish”). I’m also finishing up the last details on the book and, it being summer, getting out papers for peer-review (three so far, the goal is two more), all of which can distract from the much more compelling blog-related tasks. So, with all those excuses firmly in place, I return to blogging here.

Second, I discovered a fairly cool new tool, “Slideshare,” wherein you can view, download, and share slideshows created by others, and upload your own. Exceedingly groovy, in my opinion, although a tier below most of the presentations at TED Talks, which are quite simply addictive.

And, finally, on to the actual substance of this post, racism as the root cause of infant mortality. Infant mortality is one of those “index measures,” that demographers and public health officials use to measure quality of life. High rates of infant mortality indicate that people in the general health and well being of a group of people, whether the ‘group’ is a city neighborhood, developing country, or a racial/ethnic group. Most of the time that scholars and researchers talk about infant mortality it’s in terms of large, structures of inequality as contributing factors, such as poverty. More recently, however, researchers have begun to pay attention to racism as a root cause of high rates of infant mortality, independent of poverty, educational levels, living conditions, or even maternal health behaviors. The following slideshow from Barbara Ferrer, PhD, MPH, M.Ed., the Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission, makes a convincing case for racism as a root cause of infant mortality:


  1. Seattle in Texas

    Hello Jessie—I liked that power point presentation and just wanted to respond to the research and the white take (or take from a public health perspective?) of the researcher more specifically, not your post. I think her research and presentation is overall good and friendly for the general public. But, I think it could be strengthened if there were discussion about what goes on in white middle class and wealthy neighborhoods. Same behaviors…look at the wealthy neighborhoods on the West Coast. Well, just look at Paris Hilton and other actors. While they may have no tobacco and alcohol advertising going on, they are very large consumers of both the legal and illegal drug industries, as well as alcohol, prostitution (Chuck Sheen—haha), etc. In addition, the women do not have abortions after all (and if they miscarry) they have DNC’s. The language is all different to such that it keeps the stigmatization of particularly lower class communities of color in place, even by scholars. I left with the impression that white middle and higher class neighborhoods just don’t have the evils going on—they do, it’s just all hush hush and when they get caught, they get let off, etc. Environmentally and population density wise (as well as how wealth plays a role in obtaining good healthcare, diet, etc.), however, right on target. My point is, I think if scholars acknowledged that communities across the board engage in the same “deviant” behaviors but have fundamentally different outcomes (when is GW going to undergo his sentence and pay his white line time?); it could only serve to strengthen the arguments that racism plays a significant role in infant mortality, etc.

    Also, not surprising, there was a population(s) missing from the analysis…gee, I bet we can’t guess? They’re almost always invisible even though their roots go back to before 1492….

    The only question I do leave with though is the hypothesis that the infants birth weight, provided the mother carries to full term, will always be between both the mother and father’s birth weight. (Informally speaking, I have still yet to find an example where this doesn’t hold true–even among mother’s who smoked, etc., during their pregnancies). So, I am wondering how they define low birth weight. If both parents weighed 5 -6 pounds when they were born, their child of say 5.5 lbs at full term would not a low birth weight and would be considered healthy, normal, etc…. So, that’s sort of the question I do leave with and one I’m not sure has an absolute answer for….

  2. Jessie Author

    Hey Seattle, a bunch of great questions in there. Yes, you’re absolutely correct about the language of public health (which this presentation is steeped in) being from a ‘white’ perspective. It’s similar to demography in that way, IMO. I co-authored a book chapter that dealt with this very topic (“Whiteness and the Construction of Health Disparities,”pp. 89-127 with Amy J. Schulz). It’s in a terrific (if I do say so immodestly) volume called Gender, Race, Class, and Health, (Jossey-Bass, 2006), co-edited by Leith Mullings and Amy J. Schulz. There is most definitely a way in which the language of ‘health disparities’ (public health jargon for differences in health outcomes) is coded in particular way that privileges whiteness and obfuscates racism. So, that’s part of what is so ‘revolutionary’ about research and presentations like Ferrer’s above, is that she’s naming these ‘disparities’ as rooted in racism. It seems like stating the obvious to many people, but it’s new and radical in public health. And, I say all that as someone who’s worked and taught in public health for the last 5-7 years. As for your other question, there is a specific number associated with low birth weight, but you’d need an actual demographer or epidemiologist to answer that, and I’m neither. ;-)

  3. Seattle in Texas

    Thank you for sharing chapter and research–interesting and very important topic; when I get more time will most certainly read the work. Well, I guess just stay radical and thank you for sharing some radical work. Thanks much!

  4. Kai

    This so powerful I watched the whole thing an I didn’t intend to. PBS played a series of documentaries that cover this exact same issue and drew the exact same conclusions in the west coast. That and this both hit home for me because my wife and I just had 2 babies in the last 3 years, and the 2nd baby was born 2 months premature and weighed only 2 lbs 5 ozs at birth. She’s doing great now, but we are both college educated, she we both dealt with a great deal of stress around that time, more related to capitalism than racism.

  5. Joe

    Kai, thanks for the good comment and glad to hear the baby is doing well. It is a systemically corrupt society that is extremely wealthy but cannot provide decent health for its smallest citizens. Where are the pro-life protests about these harsh realities of life ?


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