Jabari Asim’s got a sobering look at the grim stats of black male life expectancy over at Truthdig. It includes a few eyebrow-raising facts, such as that a middle-aged man in Bangladesh or West Africa has the same or greater life expectancy than a black man of comparable demographics living in inner-city America. But what I found most surprising was the following:
Some black men engage in reckless pursuits such as unsafe sex, drug abuse and shooting up neighborhoods. It’s easy to condemn them if they bring about their own undoing, even as we reserve our compassion for their unfortunate victims. But the overwhelming majority of black men live upright lives—and their lives also tend to be shorter than those of their nonblack counterparts. For example, consider, as The Washington Post has reported, that “high mortality in urban black men persists even when homicide and AIDS are removed.’’
All this time I had assumed that gang violence and STDs were predominantly responsible for skewing the mortality figures, which would bounce back to normal if only those two risk factors could be eliminated. While that’s probably the case to some degree, it seems that the less-emphasized problems of poor diet, insufficient exercise, and inadequate health care contribute significantly to the comparative brevity of our lives. But let’s not gloss over that list too quickly—there’s a little something in there for both the nature-lovers and the nurturers.
Let’s look at nature first: clearly, what we eat and how much we exercise are things we can change if we really want to, right? Maybe not. A well-established body of research has indicated that living in so-called “food deserts” can make eating healthy very difficult for working-class families. Of course, as the familiar libertarian retort goes, grocery stores don’t establish themselves in the inner city for statistical reasons—if the consumer data on blacks shows that they consume mostly fast- and soul food, it’s just not economically viable. And thus the vicious cycle continues. Exercise follows a similar pattern—for many of us, going to the gym regularly or staying sedentary is a choice, but not for people who don’t have gyms in their neighborhoods or can’t afford the memberships.
Which brings us to health care, a cardinal concern for those who prefer environmental explanations. Asim continues:
To be sure, irresponsible lifestyles can also be the cause of [heart disease, stroke and diabetes]. But even when African-Americans make healthy choices and regularly consult doctors, their treatment may be less than thorough. A 2002 review by the Institute of Medicine found that blacks and other minorities often received poorer care despite having the same income and insurance coverage as whites.
Now here’s an issue that, far from being our fault, is clearly incumbent upon the broader medical community to address. None of the other alternative explanations I can think of explain this state of affairs better than racism, specifically the conscious or unconscious deprecation of black life in the face of limited material and human resources. Nevertheless, even as we continue to struggle against prejudice in the medical field and elsewhere, we should also start thinking about how to revise the lifestyles that lead us to emergency rooms in the middle of the night. As Asim acknowledges, our community’s grievances are complex and don’t flow exclusively from our culture or racism or history. Those who seek to rectify them should bear that fact in mind and strive to work all relevant angles of each issue.