I went to my first protest when I was 33, by accident. While running through downtown Boston on a cold December night, the rumble of traffic was replaced by a roar from above. Flying in formation over the skyline was a stretch of helicopters. Suddenly, ringing bells brought my gaze back to earth as a hundred police officers on bikes whizzed passed me toward the State Capitol. I followed.

Reaching the Boston Common, I saw thousands of people gathered—young, old, black, white—all chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” “I can’t breathe,” and “black lives matter.” The police stood by quietly, occasionally helping elderly protesters navigate the thick crowd. 

The news had reported these rallies happening all over America. The circumstances of the public outrage intrigued and infuriated me. They sparked a sense of injustice deep inside me. I joined the protest, but why?
I was a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl from Nebraska, far removed from the injustices that minorities face daily. I am not going to be the next person killed by police. Why did I, on that night, go from being a bystander to joining a march and chanting “black lives matter”? I did it…for my patients.

While protests continue for fair treatment of black Americans by the police, arguably harsher injustices occur daily within the health care infrastructure of the US. Every year, millions of American children lack access to health care. These children are born with an unequal chance at health, and ultimately survival. While facts surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner continue to be clouded by dissenting voices and spotty evidence, inequalities for African Americans in health care are sadly all too clear. The infant mortality rate for non-Hispanic black Americans is more than double the rate for non-Hispanic whites.

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Progressing into childhood, elevated blood-lead levels are 4 times as common in black children (3.5%) as in white children (0.9%). Even when considering all children whose blood levels show at least 5 μg of lead, this statistic persists. The effects of elevated lead levels are long lasting, ultimately leading to lower IQs, difficulties in school, and severe behavioral problems. Black children are more likely to be sent to the juvenile justice system for mental health issues than placed in psychiatric care, like their Caucasian counterparts. Moving into the teenage years, non-Hispanic black women have the highest pregnancy rate of all teens in the US.

The number 1 cause of death for black teens between the ages of 15 and 19 is homicide, accounting for 50% of all deaths in that demographic. As these children move into adulthood, the disparities only grow larger:

  • Non-Hispanic blacks have higher mortality rates of colon cancer than non-Hispanic whites: 23% vs 16%
  • African American adults have the highest HIV infection rate when compared with all other racial and ethnic groups in the US
  • Black adults are 50% more likely to die of heart disease and stroke before the age of 75 than their white counterparts
  • In 2010, the prevalence of diabetes among African American adults was nearly twice as high as that for white adults
  • Black Americans have the shortest life expectancy in the US

These unfair and avoidable differences in health are not mutually exclusive from the outrage over the death of 3 unarmed black men. The systemic injustice many young men and woman of color face expands beyond the current trending news of violence and unnecessary deaths.

On the night I marched, I felt a pang of sadness for the police officers who took the anti-police chants with a stoic face. They are taking the brunt of the outrage from the public when so many others are also to blame for the current culture in which discrimination and disparities exist.

While #BlackLivesMatter trends on Twitter and in the news, it should serve as a wakeup call, not only for the police, but also for those of us in the health care field. The unnecessary deaths that occur from health care inequality make us just as guilty as the officers who are in the spotlight.