Examined Lives: Why healing health starts with racial equity

By Gail Christopher

At the time my three-month old baby died, I could think of nothing but our family’s sorrow. We had lost a dear, beautiful child. What can you do but grieve?

It was only later that I realized that I was a statistic.

In fact, as I looked back, I could recall a number of early deaths in my community. When I was 15, my best friend’s mother was rushed to the hospital before she was due. It was a shock to us all when she died during delivery. This was, we thought, a healthy woman.

Then I remembered my parents’ best friends. The couple had a daughter named Alicia. Alicia also died during childbirth, along with her baby.

What was going on here? Why were these maternal and infant losses so prevalent in families of color?

I made the decision to do something to change these statistics, and began pursuing a career as a holistic doctor.

As I would come to learn, there were gross inequities between whites and African-Americans in birth and maternal health outcomes.

When I graduated from naturopathic medical school in the mid-1970s, I set up a private practice in Chicago. At the same time, I established a company that worked with social service agencies to deliver holistic wellness and well-being services to underserved communities.

Gail Christopher

We focused on getting women to eat healthfully, to get exercise, to manage stress. They did the things that are key in the holistic healing world. And these women began having healthy babies.

It actually became a joke in our community. Women referred to me as “the fertility doctor,” because I saw so many who were expecting, or who couldn’t get pregnant, or who had had babies and lost them. Of course, I wasn’t a fertility doctor. I was making sure that they got the whole health care they needed. Healthy pregnancies followed.

So this was my work: Helping women, children and families become healthier. Helping communities understand and improve disparities in outcomes. Helping reshape the statistics.

And yet I also knew that truly eliminating these differences in outcomes would mean dealing with something much bigger.

To genuinely eradicate health disparities—as a nation—we have to confront the undergirding dynamics that contribute to them. That means addressing African-Americans’ continued exposure to discrimination and lack of opportunity.

That’s hard work: structurally, politically, emotionally.

Challenging the dynamics of discrimination means reaching back through deeply entrenched roots and history. It means reconfiguring the DNA of this country’s belief system.

At a "Save Our School" rally in Cleveland, Ohio, high school junior Gail C. Christopher addresses her classmates as they convene to save their high school from demolition.

For hundreds of years, that belief system has held that it is OK for people to be valued differently based on physical characteristics. We have never as a country dealt with that belief.

Of course, we’ve had a civil war and a civil rights movement—but those dealt with the consequences of that belief rather than the belief itself. We’ve also known that race is a social, rather than biological, construct. But simply pronouncing something false is not dealing with it.

Today, at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we’ve put a priority on achieving racial healing and racial equity in this country. This work specifically and openly challenges the historical belief in racial hierarchy.

At the same time, we also work to to equip people with the innate and external resources to mitigate the effects of that historical belief.

It’s a both-and approach.

Dealing with it requires intentional strategies.

Let’s imagine a young boy growing up in a community much like the one where I used to practice. It’s an impoverished neighborhood. He’s enrolled in a failing school system. He’s harassed by police. And he or may not have the benefit of two parents or an extended family.

This child is continually exposed to overwhelming stress responses, something Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Harvard University calls “childhood adversity.” Childhood adversity is a predictive factor in all manner of chronic diseases later in life. And so we see our long racial history playing out across the health of individuals and particular communities from a very young age.

For this boy, and for his children, we have to tackle both the current situation and the historical context.

At the bare minimum, he needs balanced nutrition and social support to cope with the vicissitudes of his body’s adaptation to the stressful environment. People need optimal food for optimal health. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation funds organizations working to improve access to fresh, healthy affordable food for vulnerable children.

Dr. Gail Christopher, with her children Heather and Hassan.

At the same time, we also fund organizations working to acknowledge and dismantle structural racism—the policies and practices that continue to create barriers for children of color.

Which takes us to an evolution of my earlier question: How do we address the early death so prevalent in families of color?

Addressing these health inequities demands that we address inequality more broadly. We must create an environment that supports equity and opportunity while mitigating the effects and consequences of exposure to discrimination.

In other words, I realized that to change the statistics—to change the conditions that resulted in so much premature death in my community growing up—we must bring a racial healing and racial equity lens to our nation’s health discussion.

Until we do, we’re just putting Band-Aids on the hemorrhage.

Click here to read more about the Great Challenge of the impact of poverty on health.