Study Finds Systemic Racism, Discrimination Impacting Black Women’s Health

A new report says Arkansas policymakers can create more equitable health care by implementing aggressive strategies.

Pregnant Black woman meeting with Asian female nurse in clinic

The state of Black women’s health is in critical condition. That’s the assertion of a new brief published by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. In her report, policy health fellow CaSandra Glover argues the systemic racism, discrimination and implicit bias Black women face within the health care system have all contributed to this issue. The ongoing pandemic has also played a part.

“If anything it’s worsened, definitely exacerbated the outcomes,” Glover says. “I think it brought light to these issues that we already knew were taking place.”

Black women are disproportionately impacted by chronic health conditions like diabetes, stroke and maternal morbidity. The death rate from cervical cancer is 41 percent higher than that of White women nationwide. In Arkansas, nearly half — 49 percent — of Black women 20 years old and older have some form of heart disease. 

Because they’re more likely to have a pre-existing chronic illness prior to becoming pregnant, Black women are more likely to have a high-risk pregnancy. In 2018, Black women in Arkansas were 2.2 times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than White non-Hispanic women.

In April 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a serious public health threat. In her study, Glover argues racism has a significant influence over social determinants of health like education, housing and employment. Factors such as income levels and race can impact an individual’s ability to access health care services and safe housing, which are important to staying healthy. 

When considering the challenges faced by Black communities today, you must also consider how past policies have impacted the present, Glover says. One example is redlining. Started in the 1930s, the now illegal practice was the denial or selective raising of mortgages and loans for residents of redlined neighborhoods, which mostly consisted of Black families with low to moderate incomes. Redlining decreased Black families’ opportunity to create wealth, which led to increased poverty, greater social vulnerability and lower life expectancies, according to the report. 

In addition to housing, racism and bias also play a role in the way Black women are treated within the health care system. Black women often have their concerns or symptoms ignored and are referred less frequently for specialty care. Glover recalls experiencing this type of behavior when she was living outside of Arkansas and seeking a second opinion from a medical professional.

“I have the right to a second opinion, but I remember facing all these barriers and challenges for me trying to have my voice heard and what I wanted,” she says.

To counter this behavior, Glover recommends medical students undergo implicit bias training so they have the skills needed to surmount those biases once they’re practicing medicine. Additionally, providing funding to help with medical school expenses could be a way to support minority students who wouldn’t otherwise consider a career in medicine because of the cost.

“We need more people of color to be on the front line serving as doctors, nurses, just across the health care profession in general, so it needs to be funding to provide people with equitable access to these professions,” Glover says.

Improving Black women’s health and ensuring they have equitable access to health care services and experiences is a goal that can be accomplished if Arkansas policymakers and community leaders work together and focus on uplifting historically excluded communities, she says.

“This is something that can be solved with policies that target systemic racism and target the social determinants of health,” Glover says.

The Critical State of Black Women’s Health is part of a larger report that’s expected to be published in the coming months. The new 12-page brief is available in its entirety here

AACF is also working on another project called Medicaid: The Lived Experience. The nonprofit is seeking stories from Medicaid applicants, enrollees and community providers past and present, and is focused on obtaining stories from historically excluded populations.

If you’re interested in participating, email cglover@aradvocates.org for more information. 

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.