“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.”
It’s been 55 years since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out against the health injustices Black and brown people face in the United States. It happened on March 25, 1966 in Chicago during the Medical Committee for Human Rights Convention, and all these decades later, we are still quoting the revolutionary.
While advocates often use this quote in their work to bring affordable health insurance to those who are underinsured or uninsured, I believe Dr. King was speaking about more than medical coverage.
“Injustice in health” refers not only to the health care system that prohibits vulnerable members of our society from receiving the quality medical attention they need; it expands to all elements of health, including food and nutrition insecurity and injustices that exacerbate health disparities. Barriers to accessing affordable, healthy foods and beverages and safe places to play and be active lead to people of color disproportionately succumbing to chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and oral health diseases.
The risk starts before
a child of color is even born. In fact, in “Why
are black women at such high risk of dying from pregnancy complications,” American Heart Association News wrote about the health
challenges and traumas Black women face while pregnant. The consequences of
those experiences are surely passed on to their children who may face race and
health inequities that can reduce their quality-of-life at they grow up. Structural
racism is a major cause of poor health and premature death from heart disease
and stroke, both leading causes of death across our nation.
While Dr. King might not have used any of the phrases – like targeted universalism, racial disparities or health inequities – that have become associated with the health and racial justice movements we lead today, he also did not mince words: Racist policies lead to the suffering and premature deaths of people of color. It happened then and it’s still happening now.
Additionally, his use of the word “inhuman” emphasizes that the intentional rejection of racial and health equity is not just inhumane, but unhuman. The purposeful denial of health leading to premature and unnecessary death is so egregious, so outrageous that it goes against human nature.
That’s why as we celebrate this Black History Month, I urge those who use this quote in their work – as inspiration for themselves and to mobilize others – to tap into their humanity. Let’s show up and speak out about these injustices in health that still permeate our society. After all, Asian, Black, brown, Indigenous and Latino lives depend on us demanding better.