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Race-based health disparities and the politics of difference

October 22, 2012

My latest column at RH Reality Check discusses the fact that last week was the tenth anniversary of National Latino AIDS Awareness Day, and delves a bit into the causes of race-based health disparities.

I was inspired to write about this topic after hearing scholar and Professor Dorothy Roberts speak at Barnard College. She’s the author of two incredible books about race and health, Killing the Black Body–an absolute must read for anyone interested in reproductive rights, and Fatal Invention, her most recent book (which I reviewed here last year).

Fatal Invention takes on the question of race and genetics, and addresses the growing movement which tries to connect race-based health disparities to genetic difference, despite very little evidence to support these claims.

From my column:

Latinos do not experience higher rates of HIV and AIDS because of any unique genetic propensity or susceptibility toward the disease, but instead because of the social and economic reality faced by Latinos that lead to higher rates of HIV infections and AIDS-related illnesses. Things like lack of access to health care, homophobia, lower rates of condom use, and language barriers among other causes.

To some it may seem absurd to think that anyone would argue that race-based health disparities are a result of genetic or biological differences among racial groups, but the fact is this argument is on the rise, and it isn’t new. Studies with these kinds of claims grace the front page of the New York Times science section on a regular basis. Rather than acknowledge disparities, some want to highlight the concept of difference—meaning that racial groups have biological differences that account for these statistics, rather than blaming the conditions of racism that shape our lives and our health.

This distinction feels as important to highlight as the problem of race-based health disparities themselves, particularly in an era where the FDA can approve a race-specific drug (BiDil, a drug for congestive heart failure) with little scientific evidence backing the claim that it successfully targets African Americans over other groups.

Our work to address health disparities needs to be based outside of the laboratory or pharmaceutical industry, and instead placed in the broader social context that is likely to blame for these disparities in the first place.

Precisely because I talk so much about these race-based health disparities, I think I, and all of us, need to do a better job of explaining the likely cause. Because if not, in our silence, the assumption can be made that the statistics are simply a matter of differences. This obscures the real and horrific injustice of poverty, racism and all of the other social factors at play.

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