Damon Tweedy in Salon:
“Of all the forms of inequality,” Martin Luther King Jr. told a gathering of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in 1966, “injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane.”
At the time of his remarks, the United States had begun to take several formal steps to end its century-long practice of state-sponsored segregation that had followed the end of slavery. In medicine, this meant that black people could begin to receive treatment side by side with whites rather than being relegated to separate and unequal facilities or sectioned off in run-down areas of white hospitals. Such practices had undoubtedly contributed to their poorer health, especially in the Deep South of Dr. King’s time, where black people on average had a life expectancy nearly nine years less than whites. While the civil rights movement ultimately stirred remarkable racial progress in various areas of American life, many of King’s concerns about health and health care remain valid to this day.
From cradle to grave, these health differences, often called health disparities, are found virtually anywhere one might choose to look. Whether it is premature birth, infant mortality, homicide, childhood obesity, or HIV infection, black children and young adults disproportionately bear the brunt of these medical and social ills. By middle age, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, kidney failure, and cancer have a suffocating grip on the health of black people and maintain this stranglehold on them well into their senior years. Thus, it is no surprise that the life expectancy among black people, despite real progress over the last twenty-five years, still significantly lags behind whites. In suffering a crippling stroke at age thirty-nine, Jim had become another casualty of inequality, a fresh case that Dr. Wilson could use to illustrate the health burden of being black.