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  • United States, one that was magnified during the height of the pandemic, but has been part

  • of American history since its earliest days.

  • A new book looks at the causes for that.

  • Amna Nawaz has our conversation.

  • AMNA NAWAZ: Author Linda Villarosa puts it this way -- quote -- "At every stage of life,

  • Blacks have poorer health outcomes than whites and in most cases than other ethnic groups."

  • That is true whether we're talking about maternal and infant health or cardiac disease, diabetes,

  • or many other conditions.

  • Villarosa says that racism, both personal discrimination and structural racism, are

  • at the heart of these problems and play a much bigger role than is generally acknowledged.

  • It's the focus of her new book, "Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American

  • Lives and on the Health of Our Nation."

  • And Linda Villarosa joins me now.

  • Linda, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Thank you for joining us.

  • The book begins with kind of this personal revelation.

  • I mean, you have been reporting in this space for years, but even you say at the beginning

  • of the book you came to realize what you believed about all these health disparities was wrong.

  • What did you have wrong?

  • LINDA VILLAROSA, Author, "Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives

  • and on the Health of Our Nation": I think I grew up in a household of strivers.

  • And so we believed that personal responsibility was everything.

  • So, if you just took good care of yourself, you would be fine, and if you just did everything

  • right.

  • And then I ended up at "Essence" magazine as its health editor.

  • And that was, we believed in self-health.

  • We believed, if every Black person, every Black woman especially, took care of herself

  • and the others around her, it would lift the health status of the race in general, Black

  • Americans.

  • And no matter how hard we tried, that just wasn't true.

  • So it took a minute to say, wait, I need to shift my thinking.

  • AMNA NAWAZ: You write about this dangerous and persistent myth, we should say, that,

  • as you say, that Black bodies are somehow different.

  • And in that section, you tell us the story of the Relf sisters, tell me why their story

  • is important.

  • LINDA VILLAROSA: It was important to look at is -- it's a form of reproductive justice,

  • that we didn't have the right to have children.

  • So, during the enslavement years, we had a kind of forced labor and that had a double

  • meaning.

  • So our babies were worth something.

  • We were commodified because of the free labor that was upholding the economic structure

  • of the country.

  • But once the enslavement years were over, then it was sort of like, well, no, we don't

  • want you to have children anymore.

  • And the Relf sisters fell into that.

  • They were 12 and 14 in 1973, when they were sterilized without their parents explicit

  • consent, and without their knowledge even.

  • And what I did was, I looked into that case.

  • And I had read about it.

  • I had heard about it.

  • And I went back to Montgomery, Alabama, where it happened.

  • And I found that the sisters, who are now in their 60s, and they're living in a way

  • that they don't exactly know how their case changed history.

  • So, after they won their case, it became illegal to sterilize people against their will and

  • without their consent.

  • But they didn't benefit in any way.

  • AMNA NAWAZ: You know, you tell these stories and I think sometimes people look at them

  • and say, well, these are things that happened.

  • But you document how some of those dangerous ideas and myths persist today and impact health

  • decisions and how health care is practiced today.

  • There's a specific kidney test, which shocked me to learn about.

  • I did not know that it's processed differently for Black people than it is for any other

  • race.

  • Tell me about the justification for that and why it matters.

  • LINDA VILLAROSA: It seems like the justification came a long time ago.

  • And it was the idea that Black people had genetically different bodies than white people,

  • including in lung function, in pain tolerance, and also in kidney function.

  • And that became, that dangerous idea and really myth became embedded in medical education

  • and practice.

  • And it was interesting, because I was trying to tell someone that this still existed, that

  • you get a Black reading or a white reading.

  • And I went to the doctor six months ago.

  • I had a kidney function test.

  • And I got -- there was a Black reading and a white reading.

  • And the Black reading was circled for me.

  • And it was different.

  • And I just had to say to my friend, look at this test.

  • This proves that we're still doing this.

  • AMNA NAWAZ: And we should say that so-called Black reading, as you put it, requires a higher

  • threshold for any kind of care, and that Black Americans suffer from kidney failure at a

  • rate three times higher than white Americans.

  • So that's where it links to the outcome.

  • But the book is intensely personal.

  • I mean, I read your reporting for years.

  • But you talk about your own family and your own experience and the racism you endured

  • in a mostly white neighborhood in the Denver suburbs.

  • You also write that the research became real for you when you became pregnant.

  • Tell me about that.

  • LINDA VILLAROSA: I was very surprised.

  • I was doing everything right when I became pregnant in the late '90s.

  • And I was expecting to have a really perfect pregnancy.

  • I was.

  • I was eating bright.

  • I was taking care of myself.

  • I was the health editor of "Essence," so I was being a role model for other people.

  • So I was really surprised when I -- my doctor, who -- I had really good health care and a

  • doctor who was my friend.

  • And I went to the doctor and she said, you need to go to a specialist because your baby

  • is not growing at a rate that is expected at your level of pregnancy.

  • So I went to the specialist.

  • And I got -- the specialist talked to me and was asking me if I was -- what I was doing

  • wrong, sort of, well, how are you eating?

  • What kind of drugs are you taking and all -- asking me about all kinds of illicit drug

  • use.

  • I finally said, what is going on here?

  • My baby was born very small, four pounds, 13 ounces.

  • She's a healthy young adult now.

  • But I often thought of sort of the racism that I endured as younger person throughout

  • my life.

  • And I thought, does that have anything to do with my baby's size?

  • And now, I mean, I'm a case study of one.

  • But I have certainly heard and reported on a lot of other pregnant and birthing people

  • who have had terrible birth outcomes or tragic often birth outcomes.

  • And it's beginning to be widely acknowledged that something about toxic stress, something

  • about enduring discrimination in America is bad for your baby and bad for your body.

  • AMNA NAWAZ: Linda, these are issues that have been studied for generations.

  • They have been well-documented, the disparities, for generations.

  • I'm curious what you think about, from your perspective, why are we still having this

  • conversation today?

  • LINDA VILLAROSA: I think it's very hard to talk about race and racism in America.

  • And even when I talk to medical groups, and they're very interested in these ideas, but

  • there's a level of defensiveness.

  • And it makes it seem like I'm saying to you, individual physician or nurse or medical practitioner,

  • that you're racist, which I don't believe.

  • I think that racism and discrimination are baked into our system in our society and our

  • institutions, including the health care system.

  • And when I talk about it, it's not an individual indictment.

  • And this has been well-evidenced, very well-documented,

  • And it's not a personal indictment.

  • What it is, is a -- should be a call to action to make a change in the way medicine is practiced

  • in America.

  • AMNA NAWAZ: That is Linda Villarosa, author of the book "Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll

  • of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation."

  • Linda, thank you for your time.

  • LINDA VILLAROSA: Thank you so much.

United States, one that was magnified during the height of the pandemic, but has been part

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'Under the Skin' delves into systemic racism and its toll on health

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    Yui posted on 2022/08/05
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