It has been roughly a century since the Great Migration first began and the life expectancy for the millions of Black families that migrated north was subsequently drastically shortened due to a radically different lifestyle in crowded urban neighborhoods.
Since then, experts in the medical field still don’t believe that health care professionals are doing enough to put an end to the racial disparities that plague Black communities.
Back in 1915, millions of Black people began their historic migration from the Deep South in search of better economic opportunities in the North, chased away from the South by the deepening racial bias and violence inflicted on Black people.
While northern industrial hubs like New York City and Chicago indeed offered better economic opportunity for these people, studies suggest that the historical move was detrimental to the Black community’s health.
A study published by the American Economic Review found that mortality rates for Black men and women who migrated during this time increased dramatically.
For 65-year-old Black women who moved from the Deep South to the North, mortality rates jumped 43 percent. Black men around the same age saw mortality rates increase by 50 percent, the study claims.
It was a discovery that the researchers didn’t expect to find.
“We thought what we would find was that migration north extended life and made the African-American population healthier,” one of the study’s co-author’s, Duke University’s Seth Sanders, told NBC News.
Instead they “found exactly the opposite. Urban life is stressful. Being away from your roots is probably stressful.”
While some researchers pointed to the unhealthy vices of city life at the time, including smoking and drinking, as the main culprits behind the increased mortality rates, others pointed to the different type of stress that Black people faced after making the move to the North.
Despite the purpose of the move being to find better opportunities and perhaps see realized dreams of equality, it’s possible that migrating only exposed Black people to more forms of racism than they had previously experienced.
“[Black migrants] were fleeing the violence of the caste system in the South, only to be met with challenges and obstacles in the North,” Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, told Vox. “They were searching for ways to manage in a world that had not welcomed them…where they were met with hostility upon arrival.”
She added that the drastic toll the migration took on their health did not come as a surprise to her at all for that very reason.
It has been proven time and time again that racism has a serious impact on stress levels and overall health in the Black community.
That fact, combined with the racial disparities in health care that the Black community is still facing today, has professionals in the medical field urging their colleagues to increase their focus on what some have deemed “medical racism.”
Two recently published articles in the New England Journal of Medicine are drawing attention to the need for serious reform when it comes to racial inequality in health care.
In one article, two Chicago physicians urge the medical community to “examine the implicit biases in our academic medical centers” and “audit the care we deliver to ensure that the right treatments are provided and the best outcomes are achieved regardless of patients’ race, class or sex.”
The two doctors reference past studies that suggested a clear racial bias is making it difficult for Black people to get the medical attention they need and deserve.
One study by the Institute of Medicine from 2002 found that Black people received much less efficient care than white patients did for nearly every disease that the researchers studied.
To make matters worse, the medical world has become just as unwelcoming as the North was back during the Great Migration. Studies revealed that a great percentage of Black people don’t feel welcome at doctor’s offices and hospitals and are therefore less likely to seek treatment from medical experts. This could also contribute to the often later diagnoses of breast cancer Black women have when compared to their white counterparts.
As discussions about systemic and institutional racism continue to capture the nation’s attention and racial tensions remain high following the events that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, medical experts are hoping to use the resulting movements to make major progress in their own fields.
“We just felt in the face of Ferguson and Garner, we needed to talk openly about these gaps in health outcomes occurring in our health systems,” said Dr. David Ansell, one of the Chicago physicians who has spent decades advocating for low-income patients and patients of color. “We have all of these gaps and they haven’t gotten better after so many years.”
The second op-ed in NEJM this month agreed that it is time for the medical community to mobilize and become active figures in the fight for equality for the Black community.
“As New York City’s healthy commissioner, I feel a strong moral and professional obligation to encourage critical dialogue and action on issues of racism and health,” Dr. Mary Travis Bassett wrote. “Let’s not sit on the sidelines.”
Moving forward, Dr. Bassett believes the medical community should focus on bringing more attention to the racial disparities that are causing so many Black people to have shorter life spans while also working to reform internal structures that have led to a deficit of Black physicians.
Even outside of their own hospitals, clinics and offices, however, Dr. Bassett said the medical community must become more vocal and involved.
“Rightfully or not, medical professionals often have a societal status that gives our voices greater credibility,” she added.
For that reason, she believes, those voices must be used to help push for better health outcomes, economic outcomes, societal outcomes, educational outcomes and political outcomes for the Black community.