Systemic Discrimination Is Killing Black Babies in the United States

A few days ago, the Nation published a devastating article by Zoe Carpenter about the infant mortality rates for African-American babies.  The article deserves a careful and thorough read; it is a damning indictment of America’s collective failure to live up to our ideal of providing an equal playing field to young black Americans.  After all, there is no playing field if you don’t live long enough to get into the game.

But the article does more than that.  It details systematically the ways in which layers of discrimination and oppression build up, creating toxic environments that are literally dangerous to the health.  It illustrates that is impossible to understand or even talk about the crises in education, employment, criminal justice, and public health separately, because they feed and build on one another.  The take-away is simple: systemic discrimination is killing America’s black babies.

The Appalling Infant Mortality Rates

The evidence is stark.  The basic problem is this, as reported by NBC News, citing to World Bank numbers (just so you all know that is real, not hype):

Black women [in the United States] had the highest infant mortality rate at 11 per 1,000 births. To compare, France has an infant mortality rate of 4 per 1,000, as does Greece. Ireland, Israel and Italy have an infant mortality rate of 3 per 1,000 while in Japan and Norway it’s 2, according to World Bank data.

That infant mortality rate of 11 per every 1,000 births for black babies?  That’s more than 1 out of every 100 babies dying.  More than 1%.  Every year.  Here in the United States.  Sit with that for a moment.  As the Nation article noted, “a mother in war-torn Libya had better odds of celebrating her child’s first birthday than [a black mother in America].”

Sit with those odds, and really think about what that means — what that means for mothers, grandmothers, aunties, godmothers whose love and hopes are pinned to little black babies.   And this isn’t just a terror for poor, uneducated black families because the data shows that “even black women with advanced degrees—doctors, lawyers, MBAs—were more likely to lose infants than white women who hadn’t graduated from high school.”

Because, you see, white women in the U.S. suffer an infant mortality rate of less than half of black women, at 5 per 1,000 births, and many of those white baby deaths are attributable to the higher risks associated with multiple babies through IVF.  And the disparities are particularly clear when you look at individual locations.  For example:

The disparity is acute in a number of booming urban areas, from San Francisco—where black mothers are more than six times as likely to lose infants as white mothers—to Washington, DC. In the capital’s Ward 8, which is the poorest in the city and over 93 percent black, the infant-mortality rate is 10 times what it is in the affluent, predominantly white Ward 3. . . . Milwaukee has one of the worst infant-mortality rates of all major urban centers in the United States, and the racial gap is threefold. . . . Over the past decade, more than 100 babies, at least 60 of them black, have died in Milwaukee each year.

Discrimination Is Driving Black Infant Mortality

This hits hard.  I know how devastating it is to lose someone early.  I had a cousin die young, from an overdose.  He wasn’t still a child but was early enough on the spectrum of adulthood that it carried an extra shock.  And in my own family, we lost a little sister who was born too early, too young to survive.  These deaths are no less monumental — and in some ways more — than when age, illness or time takes adults.  But for me and my family, they are anomalies.  They are not odds that we worry might strike us or those around us with any regularity.

I live in DC, and my family lives in Milwaukee.  These statistics make clear that black families living in the same spaces I live in have to shoulder greater fear, greater worry for whether their little treasures will survive to see their first laugh, first step, first birthday cake.  For them, the odds make death more common-place.  Moreover, “black women, after all, are almost four times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than our white counterparts.”  Dani McClain‘s piece on what it is like to be pregnant, black and confronting all of these realities gives a face to the psychic toll this knowledge can take.

And decades of research trying to figure out what black mothers were doing wrong or whether there was something genetic that made black babies less able to survive determined that — wait for it — time had been wasted on blaming the victim.  It isn’t black mothers doing anything wrong, and it isn’t genetic: “studies have found that foreign-born black women living in the United States have birth outcomes almost identical to white American women’s.”

What research has shown is that high black infant mortality rates are yet another toll of systemic discrimination and our collective failure to deal with it.  I won’t repeat the ins and outs of how they’ve figured this out and what places like Milwaukee are trying to do to improve, notwithstanding politicians like Walker and Ryan making everything harder.  You should go read the whole article.  Do it.  And don’t just read that.  Read Dani’s account “What It’s Like to Be Black and Pregnant When You Know How Dangerous That Can Be” as well.

But before you go, I will leave you with this wonderful image from Julia Means, a nurse who is one of the people making it better there in Milwaukee:

By her own count, Means has worked with 360 families in the last 12 years, through a program called Blanket of Love. Every single baby whose parents came to her group meetings lived to its first birthday, she told me. Her method is to “wrap the pregnant woman up in love.”

Because the only antidote to hate is love.  And it is hatred, sometimes subtle, sometimes institutionalized, sometimes passive, sometimes direct, that is killing America’s black babies.


Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

shard4 shard5 shard7 shard9 shard10 shard11