Thanks to Meghan Clark of the blog Catholic Moral Theology (you can check out her latest post here) for introducing me to a very important documentary series, entitled Unnatural Causes, which chronicles the interconnection between racism/classism and health disparities. Thankfully for all of us privileged enough to have access to the internet, this series is now available to watch online for free.
As this series shows, in the United States, the richer you are, the longer you live. This fact affirms Gustavo Gutierrez’s insight that poverty means premature death. It is also true that white people also tend to live longer than people of color.
Importantly, the racial gap in life expectancy (and in overall physical health) cannot simply be reduced to class. Thus, while it is true that people of color (especially African-Americans, Latino/as, and Native Americans) are much more likely to live in poverty than white Americans (which should be proof enough of the persistence of racism), this is not the only reason people of color die sooner than whites. Researchers have determined that the mere fact of being black or brown and having to deal with the daily grind of both the reality and threat/possibility of racial discrimination takes a physical toll on people of color and harms their health.
Ultimately it is not just that people of color are more likely to live in poverty than whites are, but that the poverty experienced by people of color tends to be qualitatively different than that typically experienced by whites. People of color are not just more likely to be poor but also they are more likely to be poor for a long time (while 29% of poor black children are poor for ten years or more, fewer than 1% of poor white children are poor for this length of time). Similarly, due to the ongoing reality of racial segregation, people of color are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods (meaning that they are more likely to be deprived of access to the social capital of middle and upper middle class neighborhoods like high-quality schools, proximate medical care, parks, relatively low levels of pollution, etc).
In other words, it is one thing to experience poverty for one or two years or for a few months every year for several years and it is entirely different to spend one’s entire childhood growing up in poverty. Similarly, it is one thing to be a poor family in a middle class neighborhood–you will still enjoy many of the social perks of being middle class–and it is another thing entirely to live in an impoverished neighborhood or rural community.
I hope you all get a chance to watch this film and I look forward to hearing your reactions to it.