The U-M School of Public Health was the lead organizer of this year’s annual health disparities lecture in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Symposium on campus. Each year, many of the health science schools (Public Health, Social Work, Medical, Nursing, Pharmacy, Dentistry) work together to bring a speaker to discuss an aspect of health disparities. This year’s speaker was Dr. Sherman James, Susan B. King Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, a former SPH faculty member and one of the founders of U-M SPH’s Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health, one of the first centers of its kind in the United States. The annual MLK Symposium is one of my favorite things about being a U-M student: classes are officially canceled so students can attend the multitude of events celebrating the work of MLK. I got to attend two more events in addition to the health disparities lecture: Shirley Sherrod’s keynote and a screening of Bilal’s Stand, a community-made film about a friend of mine from the Detroit area who struggled with deciding whether or not to attend college or take over the family taxi business.
Dr. James’ lecture focused on health disparities in the Civil Rights era and today. He started by showing many images of public places in the US South, highlighting how they were related to health disparities then and now. Then he started talking about specific issues, one of which was maternal and infant mortality rates. In the Civil Rights era (1960), Black women died giving birth at a rate of 31.7 women per 100,000, while White women died at a rate of 22.9 per 100,000 (Chay et al., 2003). This relates to today, where here in Washtenaw County, Black babies are three times more likely to die before their first birthday than White babies. I’m doing my social work field placement at the Washtenaw County Public Health Department, where they have a campaign about this very issue, called the 3X More Likely Campaign. Michigan Radio, the University of Michigan-based National Public Radio station, recently did a story about this disparity (and interviewed my supervisor!). The suspicion is that babies are being born with very low birth weights, because they are being born premature. According to the Washtenaw County campaign site, Black women may have their babies early as they age because of the chronic, low-level stress that has been building up over the duration of their lives. This really highlights the need to continue studying the social determinants of health.