Disparities in health care and health outcomes are not just about income. Or education. Or access, according to author Linda Villarosa. They are also about race.
The author of the recently published book “Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation” spoke at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus on September 14 on questions racial equity and social justice.
Regina Richards, PhD, MSW, Vice Chancellor of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Community Engagement, highlighted the discussion as a call to action from the community.
“This event is a call to action to do our part, individually and collectively, to dismantle structural racism, intentionally rebuild through policies, organizations and procedures, and transform our communities,” Richards said. “We pursue a culture of fairness that values humanity and the lived experiences of all people.”
Racial disparities: “impossible to ignore”
Villarosa, a 1981 CU Boulder graduate, exposed a profound and disturbing story of stark disparities in health outcomes, particularly for black mothers and infants, to the Krugman Hall audience. The journalist, author, editor, novelist, educator and New York Times Magazine contributor frequently covers race, inequality and health.
Richards called the statistics staggering and said Villarosa’s work “has made racial disparities in health care impossible to ignore.”
In her essay on medical myths, referenced in the New York Times 1619 Project that preceded her book, Villarosa reviewed how a college-educated black woman in the United States is more likely to die or die in diapers as a white woman with an eighth grade education.
“The long-standing explanation for health disparities like the one we’ve seen is all about poverty,” Villarosa said. “I started getting interested in this when I was editor of Essence magazine in the late 80s, and it was always the same. If we solve the issue of poverty, we will get rid of these racial health disparities,” she said.
“The first chapter of my book is called ‘Everything I Thought Was Wrong’ because I believed it too,” Villarosa said. “And while I don’t think that’s entirely wrong, it’s not the only answer.”
Myths, sanctions and stereotypes
Why are there disparities in care that cause such a chasm in health outcomes for black people? “Under the Skin” examines how: 1) the struggle against discrimination creates wear and tear in individuals (known as weathering); 2) centuries of state-sanctioned discrimination, such as redlining, have made black communities less healthy; and 3) overt racism in the medical system harms black people and other people of color.
Villarosa’s work addresses this question by recounting and debunking myths about black bodies that have permeated not just the medical system, but the understanding of our society as a whole.
The discussion was hosted by the Colorado School of Public Health and the CU Anschutz Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Community Engagement.