H1N1 and Racism

H1N1, also known as the “swine flu,” is becoming the latest front in the battleground of racial politics (h/t to reader Residente Visitante).   There are two distinct angles to this story.

In the first, there is the disproportionate impact this epidemic is having on people of color in the U.S.   A recent NYDaily News story notes that city and federal health officials have been virtually silent about the outsize impact the pandemic appears to be having on blacks and Hispanics.  Although the Centers for Disease Control report made a passing mention in their analysis which revealed that of the first H1N1-related deaths among U.S. children, 33% (12 of 36) were among Hispanics. All told, half of the H1N1 children’s deaths between April and August were among African-Americans and Hispanics.

Perhaps quite predictably for those who are familiar with the illogic of white-framed thinking, this fact about racial disparities in health gets quickly, easily and widely misunderstood by those wishing to promote racism. Thus, enter the talking heads of the right-wing for the second angle.

Talk radio hosts Michael Savage and Neal Boortz, radio and Fox TV personality Glenn Beck, and columnist Michelle Malkin are spreading lies about the H1N1 virus through their various public media outlets, as Bonnie Fuller (admittedly, an unlikely source) points out in a recent piece at the Huffington Post. Here are just a few of the examples Fuller cites:

“Illegal aliens are bringing in a deadly new flue strain. Make no mistake about it,” blares Michael Savage.

“I’ve blogged for years about the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the US as a result of uncontrolled immigration,” writes Michelle Malkin.

“What happens if there’s a rash of deaths in Mexico… and if you’re a family in Mexico and people are dying and Americans are not, why wouldn’t you flood this border?” announces Glenn Beck.

What these kinds of comments reveal, in addition to rank racism, is a complete lack of understanding about racial disparities in health.  The facts are these:  H1N1 is not being spread by immigrants to native-born U.S. citizens.  Early in the epidemic, some U.S. college students traveled to Mexico, got sick, and came back to the U.S. and they spread the disease.   Why aren’t Savage, Malkin and Beck blaming college students for the spread of this disease?     Furthermore, the fact that Blacks and Latinos are dying at higher rates than whites from H1N1 is a consequence of institutionalized racism, not the cause of the epidemic.   Once again, hate-mongers with network contracts rather than robes and hoods, find a way to inject racism into the national discourse.

Racial Disparities in Health Take a Financial, Moral Toll

A new study by Thomas A. LaVeist (Professor in Health Policy and director of the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) and Darrell J. Gaskin (professor of health economics in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Maryland) conducted for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank, found that:

between 2003 and 2006, 30.6 percent of medical care expenditures for African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics were excess costs that were the result of inequities in the health of these groups. Between 2003 and 2006, the combined direct and indirect cost of health disparities in the United States was $1.24 trillion (in 2008 inflation-adjusted dollars). This is more than the gross domestic product of India and equates to $309.3 billion annually lost to the economy.

This staggering financial toll is accompanied by a moral toll that is even more devastating.  As LaVeist and Gaskin note:

The large number of premature deaths among American racial and ethnic minority groups represents a substantial loss of human potential, a loss of talent and productivity that might otherwise have contributed to the betterment of society. By imposing a substantial burden on the economy, health disparities visit suffering on the entire society, not just the minorities who live sicker and die younger.

That, to my mind, is the central tragedy of racism – the loss of humanity, of human potential.   And, lest this spark another round of ‘it’s in the genes’ LaVeist and Gaskin go on to note:

There are some who believe that health disparities are due solely to genetic differences among racial groups or irresponsible behaviors among those who suffer higher rates of illness and death. However, this is not true. Health disparities are rooted in environmental and societal factors associated with poverty and discrimination. As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation put it, health disparities have “more to do with your ZIP code than your genetic code.”

For all the people on this blog and in the wider public discourse who lament that we need to “do something” about ending racism and racial inequality, I would like to suggest that we do this: end racial disparities in health and see if that doesn’t go a long way toward eliminating other dimensions of inequality.