Home #ScaleFreeBaby The Case of the Mysteriously Disappearing Black Women

The Case of the Mysteriously Disappearing Black Women

by Erika Nicole Kendall

In 2015, The New York Times published reporting that discussed the 1.5 million Black men who have disappeared from their communities at the hands of the prison industrial complex.

I’ll hyper-super-duper-simplify it for you: prisons in America are for-profit institutions. Inside prison, inmates work and earn a wage, but federal law dictates that the prisons are not required to pay a livable wage to prisoners, which means they earn pennies on the dollar of what they’d earn outside those walls. The prison’s owners then sell the products of those inmates work for the standard going rate (also known as “market rate”), pocketing the difference. This is what makes prisons profitable.

But it can’t be profitable without actual inmates, so prisons hire people—lobbyists—to campaign for laws that make minor offenses punishable with prison sentences instead of fines or tickets or community service or treatment. People found themselves serving hard time for offenses as minor as possessing enough drugs to use by themselves—instead of therapy or rehab—and wound up sliding down a tall mountain into a deep pit of cyclical behavior that is virtually inescapable. Recidivism—the rate at which a person finds themselves back in prison—is high, mainly because we also stigmatize people who find themselves having to newly identify as ‘felons.’ And, because the likelihood of engaging in criminal activity becomes higher when you can’t get a good job, you find yourself back in prison.

Not only do these men disappear, but they keep disappearing.

When I read this article, my heart ached. I looked at my own family, my community, and the communities in which I live and thought to myself, “Got damn, this is engineered to be like this.”

That was my first thought. My second thought was, “Is there a counterpart to this for Black women?”

Now, I know.

During my hiatus, ProPublica and NPR published joint reporting about America’s dismal maternity mortality rate in comparison to other developed nations. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Black women are four times as likely to die as white women in the year after childbirth.

Put another way, a black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes. [source]

This gross disparity is the sole reason why the United States’ maternal mortality rate is so comparatively dismal. Rectify this, and we’re back on par with other developed countries; as it stands, we’re on par with countries like Mexico and Uzbekistan in terms of women surviving childbirth and going on to live healthy lives with their babies.

That’s another thing— in comparison to white women in the United States, Black women are 49% more likely to give birth prematurely, and our children are twice as likely to die before their first birthday.

There is no predictive marker—age, socioeconomic status, location—that can protect us. The NPR/ProPublica story centers around Shalon, a CDC employee who passed away shortly after giving birth to a beautiful baby girl—a Ph.D, a middle class career, and incredible insurance didn’t grant her the protections she and her daughter needed in order to thrive. Her acquisition of the American Dream didn’t save her.

Age isn’t a predictive factor, either. Michael Lu, a disparities researcher and former head of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration—a federal agency which funds programs targeting mothers and infants—is quoted as having said, “As women get older, birth outcomes get worse […] If that happens in the 40s for white women, it actually starts to happen for African-American women in their 30s.”

Lu attributes this to a condition known as “weathering.” “It’s the experience of having to work harder than anybody else just to get equal pay and equal respect. It’s being followed around when you’re shopping at a nice store, or being stopped by the police when you’re driving in a nice neighborhood.”

Weathering “causes a lot of different health vulnerabilities and increases susceptibility to infection,” she said, “but also early onset of chronic diseases, in particular, hypertension and diabetes” — conditions that disproportionately affect blacks at much younger ages than whites. It accelerates aging at the cellular level; in a 2010 study,[Arline] Geronimus, [a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health] and colleagues found that the telomeres (chromosomal markers of aging) of black women in their 40s and 50s appeared 7 1/2 years older on average than those of whites. [source]

Pay special attention to that term, “weathering”—the idea that there is a physical and emotional toll that, when endured to a certain degree, can have an impact physically on the human body. We discussed this before, how racism and other stressors can contribute to the poor health of a collective community.

Then consider the recent passing of Erica Garner.

The daughter of Eric Garner, a man whose life was ended at the hands of an NYPD officer employing an illegal choke hold as he screamed out “I can’t breathe,” Erica took on the challenge of fighting to change the way NYPD engaged with minority communities after her father’s untimely death. Erica was clear about her intentions, driven in her fight, and determined to hold people accountable for their apathy towards the plight of her community, our community. Can you imagine the toll this took on her over the years?

Erica spoke about her own weathering, when she spoke about Venida Browder—mother of Kalief Browder (whose absolutely unconscionable death still haunts me in my sleep)—who passed away because of… well, let Erica tell it.

[Venida Browder] died of a broken heart. She had heart problems because she kept on fighting for her son. Like, I’m struggling right now, with the stress and everything, ’cause this thing, it beats you down. The system beats you down until you can’t win. … I felt the same pain that my father felt on that day when he was screaming, “I can’t breathe.” When he was saying that he was tired of being harassed, tired of being arrested and his money stolen. [source]

Erica passed away at the end of 2017, months after giving birth to her second child, a baby boy. Reportedly, an asthma attack triggered a heart attack in the newly-post-partum mama, followed by a stroke. Shalon, the sister in the NPR/ProPublica reporting, suffered an eerily similar fate. The research her department was responsible for, shows that many black women are succumbing to the same fate.

In a national study of five medical complications that are common causes of maternal death and injury, black women were two to three times more likely to die than white women who had the same condition.

That imbalance has persisted for decades, and in some places, it continues to grow. In New York City, for example, black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers, according to the most recent data; from 2001 to 2005, their risk of death was seven times higher. Researchers say that widening gap reflects a dramatic improvement for white women but not for blacks. [source]

I won’t make assumptions about the care these women received, or the competency of their doctors, or the details of their medical records. I don’t have to.

Here’s what I know, though.

We’ve been talking about the kinds of biases against fat people in health care for almost a decade on this blog. We’ve been talking about the kinds of failed programs people create for Black girls and, instead of considering their programming a failure and their observations incomplete, they simply consider Black girls ‘non-compliant.’

People entrusted with the responsibility of caring for us walk into our hospital rooms, make assumptions about our bodies and our ability to care for them, and use that assumption to determine how much energy they invest in empowering us to do it ourselves. In Shalon’s story, countless people saw the warning signs, and no one bothered to take the first step towards saving her. They, quite simply, watched her health spiral downward.

Apathy is defined as “a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern; indifference.” Apathy is the polite word for responding to something serious and major with a “shrug.”

When you look at the health care system we have in America today, it creates a system where all the hospitals with the most updated technology and training are in the locations with the highest average income and the most people covered by insurance. Rural communities rarely have enough people to financially sustain a hospital; inner cities rarely have enough people who can afford health care. Insurance, though helpful in the event of an emergency, is still an exorbitant expense when you consider that many people don’t even have a savings account, let alone have enough cash tucked away to cover the cost of their deductible.

This is a system that, according to the numbers, disproportionately disadvantages black women. At some point, you have to look at this and say to yourself, “Got damn, this is engineered to be this way.”

Rest assured, the consequences of the prison industrial complex don’t solely impact Black and Brown men, but the overarching perception of “criminal” and “inmate” and “felon” as “Black” is what fuels the apathy people feel towards actively advocating for change.

The same could be said for this, too. The consequences of the medical industrial complex—because that is exactly what this is—don’t solely impact Black and Brown women, but the overarching perception of “poor” and “needy” as “Black” is what fuels the apathy wider people feel towards actively advocating for change.

(I point this out often, but America was moving towards a more egalitarian, damn-near socialist nation until it was clear they’d have to share the spoils with newly-freed slaves; turning down benefits for themselves was okay as long as it meant the lazy—those who would no longer work for nothing (the sheer irony)—were penalized too. It should also be noted, however, that if benefits could be baked into laws that allowed Black people to be denied, then the benefits continued on.)

That apathy is fueled by racism. It always is. Whenever you find people apathetic towards the fight against injustice, you will undoubtedly discover that their apathy is rooted in racism and what “they” “deserve.”

No one deserves this. And, if you disagree, I’d ask you what your apathy is rooted in, too.

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