Black Maternal Mortality: ‘It is Racism, not Race’

CCP's Tina Suliman writes: "The maternal mortality crisis in the United States emphasizes the truth behind this declaration: It is racism, not race, that is killing America’s Black mothers and babies."
Photo: B'more for Healthy Babies

On Thursday, May 6, the eve of Mother’s Day weekend, the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee held a hearing on racism in Black maternal health care. Among the witnesses were the families of Black mothers who had died giving birth. Congresswoman Cori Bush gave an impassioned speech recounting her own traumatic pregnancy experiences as a Black woman. “Every day, Black women die because the system denies our humanity,” Bush said.

Representative Bush’s experience is unfortunately common. In Maryland, CCP’s backyard, Black women are four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women. This disparity is rooted in systems of oppression and injustice, and persists even when controlling for education, body mass index and socio-economic status.

The tragic story of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health alumnus, Shalon Irving, underscores this fact. Shalon, herself an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) whose research aimed to address health disparities, tragically passed away three weeks after giving birth to her daughter Soleil in 2017. In the week leading up to her death, Shalon exhibited several red flags, including alarming spikes in blood pressure, severe swelling in her legs, headaches and swelling at her C-section incision. Despite repeatedly seeking medical care, providers dismissed her symptoms as normal. She ultimately collapsed in her home. Even Shalon’s PhD, private health insurance and social safety net were not enough to ensure her survival.

This crisis is driven by unconscious bias in the medical system and its actors. In a 2016 survey of white medical students, nearly half held false beliefs about biological differences in Black patients, including thicker skin and less sensitive nerve endings. Another 2020 study found that Black babies are more likely to live if they are cared for by a Black physician. Recently, the CDC declared racism a public health threat. The maternal mortality crisis in the United States emphasizes the truth behind this declaration: It is racism, not race, that is killing America’s Black mothers and babies.

Despite having an abundance of expertise, too often Black Mamas* have been denied the authority to define maternal health. What would it look like to collaboratively design programming and initiatives driven by the people they were meant to benefit? What would public health programming look like if we all embraced that the communities we serve are full of assets and not singularly defined by deficits? What would self-determination look like in these communities?

As the famous activist and scholar Angela Davis once said: “Black women have had to develop a larger vision of our society than perhaps any other group. They have had to understand white men, white women and Black men. And they have had to understand themselves. When Black women win victories, it is a boost for virtually every segment of society.”

CCP’s approach engages community leaders as fellow champions of change. In the United States, Black Mamas have always been the guide and bridge for families, communities, movements and societal transformation. Through our work on B’more for Healthy Babies, CCP is working in partnership with several Baltimore-based organizations, including lead partners Baltimore City Health Department, Family League of Baltimore, and HealthCare Access Maryland, to advance the movement for racial and birth justice.

We do this by using data to make injustice visible, making community voice central to planning and mobilization, and working to root out racist and discriminatory practices in our programs and workplaces and replace them with equitable ones.

In the last five years, much has changed for the better. There is increased attention to the Black Maternal Health Crisis and even policy progress. The May 6 hearing came as part of the push to pass the comprehensive and widely supported Black Maternal Health Momnibus. This bill creates opportunities to develop data-driven, evidence-based practices and programs that value and trust the lives, knowledge and leadership of Black Mamas. It invests in their health – and creates opportunities for Black Mamas to be heard.

In the words of one witness: “We cannot legislate for compassion.” But the Momnibus does present the promise of intentional change geared towards dismantling systems and bringing attention to intersecting oppressions that disproportionately impact Black Mamas the hardest.

Behind the shocking statistics and disparities are people who loved and were loved and who left behind devastated families and communities. These tragedies are preventable. The historical atrocities we work against are deeply rooted in racial and reproductive oppression and must be countered with community activation and prioritizing Black Mamas across the African Diaspora.

*In alignment with Black Mamas Matter Alliance, an organization leading the fight against the Black Maternal Mortality Crisis, we are using the phrase “Black Mamas” to represent the full diversity of lived experiences that includes birthing persons (cis women, trans folks and gender nonconforming individuals) and all people of African descent across the diaspora (Afro-Latinx, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Black, and African Immigrant). We recognize, celebrate and support those who care for and mother our families and communities.

To further explore the connection between racism and health and how intersecting identities can inflame this connection, we strongly recommend The African American Policy Forum’s webinar “When Misogynoir is a Pre-Existing Condition: Black Women’s Health Through the Twin Pandemics”.

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