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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Black Americans face a widening life expectancy gap, biggest since 1998

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Driving around Indianapolis, Ronald Rice Jr. sometimes prefers to take a longer route just so he can pass through the wealthy neighborhoods. He says something about these places just lifts his spirit up.

“When I go into a wealthier neighborhood and I see everyone outside working out before they go to work, or they’re out there with their kids, or they’re out there with their dogs, and so on and so forth,” he says.

He misses that in the predominantly Black neighborhood where he lives and works. Safety on the streets is not the main issue, he said. Instead, he describes the residents’ struggle like this: “I’m so tired from working eight-plus hours every day, or having to do overtime, just to be able to have money to feel like my job is actually worth it.” 

Rice is the community networker for the Northwest side of Indianapolis, handling projects to improve the quality of life. But doing things to improve long-term health is just not pertinent for people constantly in survival mode, like many residents are. 

“Trying to live that American dream to the best that you can, but you only have so many options that are available to you,” he said. “And again, a lot of those options, they were taken away from us … [by] systemic racism, so on and so forth.”

Not to mention health care access problems, racism in medicine, police brutality and more. He said it all leads to monstrous stress, day in and day out — and it shows in the health of Black Americans.

A recent report by the CDC shows that the life expectancy of Americans dropped by a year in the first half of 2020 due to the pandemic. But the drop did not affect everyone equally.

“In the report, it definitely shows us that life expectancy for Hispanics and for non-Hispanic Blacks went down more dramatically than in non-Hispanic white populations,” said Brian Dixon, director of public health informatics at the Regenstrief Institute. 

The CDC report points out that Black Americans die almost six years earlier than whites. That gap is the widest since 1998.

Dixon cautions that the CDC data is preliminary and only accounts for the first half of 2020, so it might change. Still, the disparities are likely to stay.
This comes as no surprise to Tess Weathers, research associate at the IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health.

Weathers has spent years studying life expectancy in Indianapolis. She worked on a 2015 SAVI report that showed a 14-year difference in life expectancy between some neighborhoods separated by a short drive.

Most Black Hoosiers live in the neighborhoods with low life expectancy rates. And she said even during other crises such as hurricanes, Black Americans usually bear the brunt. 

“People have unequal, unfair differences in life expectancy because they are leading unfair different lives,” Weathers said. “And the ownership is not solely on individuals, which is often the thing we do in America, we place the ownership on individuals. Society — we as an entire country or as a state need to take responsibility for our role in that.”

Black Americans face a wide range of health disparities — from cradle to grave. It starts with infant mortality and includes gun violence and chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. 

Joanna LeNoire, a retired nurse living on Columbia Avenue, has seen her neighborhood turn from a place bustling with friends and family to what she calls a ghost town.

“When I think about the people in the neighborhood that died with cancer, it was really kind of shocking,” LeNoire said. “The lady that lived across the street from us, she had twins who died with cancer. The lady that lived across the street from me died with brain cancer. My cousin died with throat cancer.”

While getting sick is not something unique to Black Americans, the extent to which this is happening is what’s alarming. 

The disparity has been running deep for over 100 years, according to Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a University of Minnesota assistant professor of sociology who studies the history of infectious diseases.

“White mortality during the 1918 pandemic, which was such a big spike, it was almost off the charts,” she said. “But white mortality during that pandemic was less than Black mortality had been every single prior year.” 

She adds that white mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 “will probably be less in the final accounting than Black mortality has ever been in the United States. So that’s the preexisting context. It is really extreme inequality.”

This leads LeNoire to wonder: “It makes me feel that Black people in this country have no rights. You know, it’s like, if you didn’t want us here, and if you didn’t want to share what you had, why did you come and get us in the first place?”

This story was reported as part of a partnership between WFYI, Side Effects Public Media and the Indianapolis Recorder. Contact Farah Yousry at fyousry@wfyi.org or 857-285-0449. Follow her on Twitter @Farah_Yoursrym.

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