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Vestiges of racism still linger

The Martin Luther King, Jr sculpture is seen

The Martin Luther King, Jr sculpture is seen at the MLK Memorial on Dec. 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. Credit: AFP/GETTY IMAGES/KAREN BLEIER

The celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday highlights struggles and triumphs from the past. But what if the past is now? For as much as African Americans promote our progress, on Long Island we still live with the history of slavery.

This legacy exists in our criminal justice system, housing patterns, and health care. The nexus of these issues is in how black pregnant women and infants are treated and fare in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Infant mortality is the most sensitive indicator of the health of a society since infants cannot care for themselves. Historically in the United States the black infant-mortality rate has been significantly higher than the white infant-mortality rate; in Nassau County four times as many black infants die than white infants. Three to four times as many black women die related to childbirth than white women. The reasons for these differences include access to health care and chronic disease. Overlooked is the physical effect that toxic stress caused by historical racism has on our bodies.

As black women and mothers living in Nassau and Suffolk, we have experienced the conditions that contribute to the high rates of maternal and infant mortality.

The most widely used quote from King Jr. about health is, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane because it often results in physical death.” King was speaking at a news conference in Chicago in 1966 to protest hospitals’ discrimination against black patients, violating the Civil Rights Act. He stated that the black infant-mortality rate in some neighborhoods in Chicago was as bad as rates in Mississippi. Today in the high-income suburbs of Long Island, maternal and black infant mortality rates are higher than in New York City.

For instance:

  • Nassau’s black infant-mortality rate is 8.7 infant deaths per 1,000 births. In New York City, that rate is 7.8.
  • The maternal mortality rate in Nassau County is higher than in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.
  • Suffolk County’s preterm birthrate percentage — a leading cause of infant death — is 11.8%, higher than in New York City.
  • Infant-mortality rates by ZIP codes tell the history of racial residential segregation on Long Island. In Roosevelt, a majority minority community, the infant mortality rate is 8.8 per 1,000; in the nearby majority white ZIP code for Bellmore, the infant mortality rate is 0.

To many of those in power, these injustices are invisible. There are no comprehensive plans to address inequalities in birth outcomes by race in public reports like the Nassau County Community Health Needs Assessment, and there’s no funding or legislative priority for maternal and infant mortality among local state lawmakers.

We need to mobilize Long Island stakeholders — including health care providers and hospital systems, legislators and community members. Black maternal and infant health equity requires examining and re-establishing the systems, policies and practices that contribute to our current status.

Making this injustice visible is a necessary start.

Martine Hackett is associate professor of public health at Hofstra University and co-founder of Birth Justice Warriors, an education and advocacy organization. Shanequa Levin is the chief executive and founder of Women’s Diversity Network, an advocacy group.

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