By Lisa Williams-Taylor
CEO, Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County
Tennis great Serena Williams is strong, smart and famous. But none of that protected her from a life-threatening complication after giving birth to her daughter, according to the harrowing account she shared in a recent edition of Vogue magazine.
Ms. Williams is 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes than any white woman in the hospital room next to her, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why? Because she is black. When it comes to the health of a woman’s pregnancy in the United States, Florida and here in Palm Beach County, education, wealth and social status do not matter as much as skin color.
This is a startling, disturbing and unacceptable fact.
It gets worse. This health disparity is not limited to black women. Black babies are three times more likely than their white peers to die before reaching their first birthday. Again, social status is not a factor.
Then what, you may be asking yourself, is?
While experts still are researching this complex and devastating phenomenon, the answer appears to be fairly straight-forward: Racism.
A U.S. National Institutes of Health review of 15 scientific studies done between 2009 and 2015 confirm a strong link between stress caused by racial discrimination and poor birth outcomes.
“… Researchers have noted that racial and ethnic minority women experience higher lifetime exposure to chronic stressors, which may increase their risk for poor pregnancy outcomes. The accumulation of stress over a woman’s life course, referred to as allostatic load, is associated with worse health outcomes.”
So what kind of stress are we talking about? Chronic, persistent, long-term stress caused by “institutional, interpersonal and internalized” racism, according to the NIH report.
While some stress is healthy and normal, chronic stress weakens the body – increasing a person’s risk for heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and much more, according to the American Psychological Association.
This kind of compounding, toxic stress is caused by housing, educational and workplace discrimination; by both overt and unconscious racist messages coming from media, government and other institutions; by microaggressions and personal encounters with teachers, doctors, shop owners, neighbors, classmates, co-workers and others.
And it takes a brutal toll on black women and their babies.
Here at Children’s Services Council, we’ve long recognized the impact of these compounding stressors. In Palm Beach County, black women are 1.4 times more likely than white women to die while pregnant, giving birth or in the first six weeks after having a baby, according to three-year data from the state Department of Vital Statistics.
Meanwhile, 12.4 percent of black babies in the county were born low birthweight in 2016, compared to 6.4 percent of white babies.
We’ve analyzed the data to identify inequities, and we’ve funded programs – such as Community Voice, BRIDGES, Women’s Health Initiative and Centering – specifically to address racial disparities, expand access to health information and medical care, and reduce barriers to mental health and social supports.
Over time, we have seen some improvements. But we still have a long, long way to go.
That’s why Children’s Services Council has written a Racial and Ethnic Equity Impact Statement and posted it on our website. And that’s why we’re crafting a long-range plan. Currently, we’re working as an organization to more deeply understand racial equity in society. At the same time, we’re developing an internal infrastructure to address equity issues, with about 40 staff directly involved in the strategic process. Lastly, we’ll put the plan into action to ensure we consider racial equity when making both organizational and communitywide policy decisions.
We alone can’t heal a wound generations in the making, which is why we’re working closely with partners like the county, the school district, United Way of Palm Beach County and others to change societal structures and level the playing field for all families. Sounding the alarm on racism is a first, vital step.
To learn more about our Racial Equity work, please contact Shana Cooper, public information officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-374-7570.
To read the version of this Point of View that ran in the Palm Beach Post Feb. 10, 2018, click here.