“Black women in Chicago are less likely to get breast cancer, but they’re twice as likely to die from breast cancer than white women.”
Social justice advocate Dorothy Roberts, along with other researchers, attempted to explain surprising statistics like that yesterday at “Advancing Health Through a Racial Lens,” an event sponsored by the African American Studies Department aimed at exploring health disparities in a racial context.
The panel members spoke in Stamp Student Union’s Banneker Room to about 50 faculty, staff and students. And although several of the researchers argued different racial genomes cause health disparities between white and black people, Roberts said differences exist because of social injustice.
There aren’t certain “cancer genes” that black women possess but white women don’t, Roberts said; rather, researchers discovered the death rates from breast cancer among white and black women was the same in the 1980s, and the gap was created over the next two decades. Access to health care and other socioeconomic factors, not DNA, improved women’s health, Roberts said.
“Racial differences are real at the molecular level,” she said, “but it’s merely constructed in society.”
Anthropology professor Thurka Sangaramoorthy discussed HIV and AIDS issues among racial groups, and family science professor Mia Smith Bynum spoke about her research on the relationships between African-American children and their mothers, explaining why and how mothers teach and react to their kids facing racial discrimination. Gneisha Dinwiddie, African American studies professor, focused on the prevalence of cardiovascular disease among black people and race as a social construct.
The panelists also addressed racial discrimination, which they said is still prevalent, and they disagreed with those who claim the nation is a “so-called post-racial society.” Roberts said race was scientifically constructed in the past as a way to justify slavery and colonialism.
“Who’s white and who’s black? It’s made up,” Roberts said. “Why? Because it was politically imperative.”
According to Roberts, some researchers propose there are “selective advantages” in white babies’ genes, giving them lower infant mortality rates than black babies.
“How in the world can there be a selective advantage for babies to die?” Roberts said. “That doesn’t even make sense.”
“Race is not a biological category that naturally produces health disparities because of genetic differences,” she said. “Race is a political category because of the impact of social inequality on people’s health.”
Min Kim, a Baltimore City Health Department employee in the audience, said she was shocked to learn how many people believed racial health disparities stem from genetics. She said much of the work she does is with black women and race is a prominent factor in health disparities.
De’Shaun Harris, a freshman biology major, said he was pleasantly surprised by the discussion. He was also jarred when Bynum spoke about experiments in children being racially profiled — an issue that hit close to home, he said.
Bynum’s research involved two particular “vignettes” in which parents read hypothetical scenarios about their children and researchers observed their reaction to the stories. One such scenario involved a black student in a class full of white students who consistently raises his hand to participate but is never called on. The teacher racially profiles him, and he receives a poor grade, which Harris said mirrored his own experience.
“When I was in third grade, I used to raise my hand a lot, but I got a bad grade,” he said.
Senior economics major Ed Scranek said he came to the lecture for a class but learned more than he expected and was surprised by much of the information.
“I didn’t know all this was going on,” Scranek said. “But everything seems political … it’s all about keeping the rich, rich and the poor, poor.”