‘Structural Racism’ Blamed For Severe Health Disparities In Minnesota

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In Minnesota, African-American babies are twice as likely as Whites to die in their first year, African-American men are more likely to die from prostate cancer than Whites, and stroke deaths are significantly higher among African-American, American-Indian, and Asian populations compared to Whites.

These and other racial gaps in the health of Minnesotans have been recorded in a new report prepared for the legislature, with health officials warning that the state must tackle the deeply entrenched problems if it is to close what are some of the greatest racial health disparities in the United States, the Star Tribune reports.

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State Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger says part of the blame can be laid at the feet of “structural racism,” which, he said, all Minnesotans must confront in order to bridge the gap, “Everybody is damaged by health disparities.”

Ehlinger cited the Health Department’s own radon testing program as an example of deep institutional health barriers. The program educates homeowners to test their houses for the chemical, which can cause lung cancer, but only one-fifth of Black residents own their own homes in Minnesota — compared to 75 percent of White residents. This means that Blacks are less likely to be reached by the program, and as renters, less likely to be able to install radon remediation systems where they live.

In reaction, the report is suggesting extensive reforms, including raising the state minimum wage — because health is linked to poverty — and changes in state education, housing, and transit policies.

“It’s an issue that cannot be resolved just by the medical care system.”

In addition to presenting their findings to legislators, health officials plan to establish a Health Department ­center focusing on “health equity” and to meet with concerned parties across the state. The Health Department will even evaluate itself for structural racism and work to recruit and hire more people of color.

The findings show major race-based differences in nearly every major disease condition in Minnesota the department tracks:

• African-American men are more likely to die from prostate cancer than White men.

• American Indians have much higher rates of diabetes than Whites; Latinos are much more likely than Whites to die from diabetes.

• Stroke deaths are significantly higher among African-American, American Indian, and Asian populations compared to Whites.

• American-Indian, Latino, and African-American youth have the highest rates of obesity.

• African-American and Latina women are more likely to be diagnosed with later-stage breast cancer.

Whether the findings will lead to action by lawmakers remains unclear. Rep. Jim Abeler, an Anoka Republican who is a leading voice on health policy, told the Tribune that he agrees the state needs to do more to reduce its health disparities but said blaming structural racism is misguided.

“They would rather study a problem than to do anything about it,” he said told the Tribune. “It’s not [about] creating new ­programs. There’s a lot of programs; you’ve just got to make sure that they’re directed toward the greatest needs.”

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