Racism, Food, and Health
April 18th, 2010

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Many well-meaning white people in the U.S. think that racism is an ugly part of our history that was essentially dealt with by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They see we now have black mayors and police chiefs in some of our largest cities. They see we now have black corporate executives. They see the phenomenal success of prominent African-American athletes and entertainers. The see people of Asian and Hispanic descent rising to prominence in business, sports, and many other spheres of life. They want to believe that people with black or brown skin now have equal opportunities and are treated fairly.

During the O.J. Simpson trial, the great majority of white people in the country thought the former football player was guilty. Things were different, though, among African-Americans. The majority of blacks thought he had been set up by the police. Typically, whites found this difference puzzling. It seemed obvious to them that Simpson had committed the murders.

In the Simpson case, many whites could not understand why blacks would be so suspicious of the police. They did not grasp how differently people of color experience life in this country. They did not understand the enormous inequalities that characterize the way people of color are often treated by police and courts in the United States.

  • Young black males make up 6 percent of the U.S. population, and 50 percent of the prison inmates.
  • Three out of every four (76 percent) African American 18-year-olds living in urban areas can anticipate being arrested and jailed before age 36.
  • In Massachusetts, blacks and Hispanics make up 9 percent of the state’s population, but 83 percent of imprisoned drug offenders.
  • African-American teens are more than ten times as likely to be incarcerated in California Youth Authority facilities as white or Asian youth.
  • Danville, Virginia, regularly executes more people than any county in the country outside of Texas, but has never once since its incorporation in 1890 executed a white person.
  • Black juveniles with no prior jail time who are charged with a drug offense are 48 times more likely to be sent to prison than white juveniles charged with the same offense.

It is painful for anyone who appreciates the goals of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to understand just how deeply racial disparities still affects the lives of people of color in this country. When you have been taught to believe this nation promises “liberty and justice for all,” when you want to see this become a land of equal opportunity, it can be hard to grasp just how unfairly people of color in this country are treated. But despite the efforts and prayers of many people to remedy the injustices, it remains the case that the vast majority of people of color endure not only unequal treatment before the law today, but many other forms of discrimination and injustice, including greatly diminished job opportunities, and far deeper and more intractable levels of poverty.

  • In 1865, shortly after Lincoln freed the slaves, blacks owned 0.5 percent of the nation’s net wealth. In 1990, a quarter-century after the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s had become law, despite the wealth of a handful of black athletes and entertainers such as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, the percentage of the nation’s net worth owned by blacks still totaled just 1 percent.
  • Today, the median annual family income for whites is approximately $47,000, while for African-Americans it’s $26,000.
  • In 1910, black Americans owned at least 15 million acres of farmland, nearly all of it in the South, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Today, blacks own only 1.1 million acres of farmland and are part owners of another 1 million acres.
  • Black-owned small businesses are more than three times as likely as white-owned firms to have loan applications turned down, despite the same creditworthiness.
  • Injustice does not just beset African-Americans. Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Latinos, and other people of color also lack access to opportunities that many white households take for granted.
  • The median financial wealth of African Americans (net worth less home equity) is $200. For Hispanics, it is zero.
  • Hispanics are rejected for home mortgages twice as often as whites, regardless of income.
  • The poverty rate for Hispanics is 2.5 times greater than than for whites.
  • Less than half the households on U.S. Indian reservations have phone service.

There has been some progress. The most blatant expressions of racism have lost legitimacy. Public lynchings and cross burnings are no longer tolerated. You won’t often hear words like “nigger” or “spic” in public speech. There are laws now that forbid acts of conspicuous racial hatred.

Very few white people in positions of power today fit the old stereotypes of race haters. Most are decent and would object to obvious expressions of racial intolerance or prejudice. But when we believe that the only problem is hatred, we avoid facing the reality that racial inequality is perpetuated mostly by the ignorance and indifference of non-hating people. As racism has become less visibly obvious since the 1960s, it has become easier for those not directly harmed by it not to see the many ways that it continues to eat away at the lives and spirits of people of color.

Indifference on the part of those in positions of privilege toward the conditions in which people of color live is not racism in the classical sense of overt hatred and bigotry. But indifference and neglect allow conditions to continue that unfairly discriminate against people of color, undermining all of our hopes for a more just and compassionate world.

There are other forms of injustice that are not often acknowledged by the mainstream white community, but that are insidiously destructive to the lives and spirits of people of color. People of color often face severe obstacles to health and healing that are invisible to most white Americans.

Most white people do not grasp the extent to which people of color suffer unequal health conditions. They may not realize that compared to a white person, a black person in the United States is eight times more likely to have tuberculosis, ten times more likely to die from homicide, and thirty times more likely to have syphilis. Hispanics and other people of color likewise suffer from glaring racial and ethnic disparities for a wide variety of diseases and other health threats. Latino children in Southern California are six times more likely to contract Hepatitis A than non-Latinos.

Neighborhoods of color are more often characterized by inferior public schools where art and music classes have been eliminated, and where no forms of structured physical activity or physical education classes take place. There are few (if any) safe recreational facilities. Public health and sanitation measures are underfunded, creating ideal conditions for cockroaches, rats, and pathogenic microbes to thrive. Health care, if it exists at all, is vastly inferior. Both at home and in the workplace, people of color in this country are far more apt to be exposed to environmental toxins.

In the United States today, the prevalence of virtually every disease is highest among people of color. The rate of hospitalization for asthma is 21 times higher in the Bronx and Harlem than for more affluent parts of New York City.

Statistically, people of color have less formal education and less access to many kinds of resources, and are therefore more vulnerable to the manipulations of junk food advertising. Children of color are disproportionately the latchkey kids who watch an average of 32 hours of television a week during which they are bombarded by ads for sugar-laden greasy foods. Neighborhoods of color are full of billboards for tobacco, alcohol, and the least healthy of foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables, organic foods, and whole grains are difficult (if not impossible) to find; instead there are convenience stores and fast food chains with their greasy “bargains.” Meanwhile, women of color are about 50 percent more likely to be obese than their white counterparts.

The diets of people of color are typically higher in sugar, salt, fat, and refined carbohydrates. Lacking access to healthier foods, and also lacking knowledge about what diets are in fact healthier, the poor are easy prey, not only to the tobacco and alcohol sellers whose billboards pervade their neighborhoods, but to the junk food industry and the fast food chains who see these communities as markets they can readily exploit.

Government policies that permit these conditions to exist take a disproportionate toll on people of color. By the same token, policies that confront these conditions would make a real difference. Public policies could tax junk food and use the revenue to subsidize fresh fruits and vegetables. Ads promoting unhealthy products could be banned. White bread could be taxed and the resultant income used to subsidize whole wheat bread, thus making it cheaper to eat more healthfully. Government policies could get junk food out of schools, and foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats could be taxed to generate funds for nutritional education. Schoool districts could ban sugary drinks and candy in vending machines (it’s been done by the 54,000 student Oakland, California school district).

There is so much public agencies could do if they were serious about the health of people of color. Fast good chains and junk food companies could be held accountable for their role in causing malnutrition and disease. Food guides could feature traditional ethnic foods, rather than displaying the products sold by fast food corporations. For example, the bread and cereal group might include grits, macaroni, tortillas, corn bread, biscuits, hominy, or brown rice. The vegetable group could include greens, turnips, succotash, sweet potatoes, coleslaw, and okra.

Bad public policies and bad nutritional advice harms everyone, but some groups are more vulnerable, and hence more badly damaged. It is children of color who most often depend on the National School Lunch program for their only substantial daily meal. They are the ones most harmed when 90 percent of the three to four billion dollars the USDA spends on the program is used to buy ground pork, ground beef, whole milk, high-fat and high-salt cheeses, and eggs.

People of color suffer disproportionately from the epidemics (heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and cancer) that are fueled by excess meat consumption. They are the ones most harmed when the Food Pyramid continues to push frequent meat consumption.

  • The cancer incidence among African-Americans compared to whites in the United States is 26 percent greater.
  • The prostate cancer rate among African-Americans compared to whites in the United States is 36 percent greater.
  • The lung cancer incidence among African-Americans compared to whites in the United States is 53 percent greater.
  • The likelihood of an African-American woman dying of breast cancer compared to her Caucasian counterpart is 67 percent greater.
  • The hypertension (high blood pressure) rate among African-Americans compared to whites in the United States is 40 percent greater.
  • The heart disease rate for Hispanic women compared to white women in the United States is double.
  • The incidence of obesity among African-American and Mexican-American women compared to white women in the United States is 45 percent greater.
  • The diabetes incidence among Hispanic men compared to white men in the United States is 53 percent greater.
  • The diabetes incidence among African-American men compared to white men in the United States is 69 percent greater.
  • The diabetes incidence among African-American women compared to white women in the United States is more than double.
  • The diabetes incidence among Native American women compared to white women in the United States is more than triple.

Healthy lifestyles, including eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise, can significantly help to prevent, reverse and control these diseases. Studies have shown that people eating plant-based diets have far lower rates of heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity and diabetes than do meat-eaters. But current government policies are indifferent to the reality that non-Caucasian persons are suffering disproportionately from diseases caused by the standard American diet.

The federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans purport to provide nutritional advice to keep Americans healthy. Though ostensibly written for all Americans, the guidelines ignore the unique health needs and traditional food customs of African Americans and other racial minorities.

The federal government currently recommends that all U.S. children drink milk every day — including the 70 percent of African Americans, 95 percent of Native Americans, 60 percent of Hispanic Americans, and 90 percent of Asian-Americans who are lactose intolerant.

Federal guidelines continue to advocate dairy products as the primary source of calcium, ignoring the fact that most people of color experience nausea, intestinal gas, bloating, abdominal cramps and diarrhea when they eat milk, cheese, or other dairy products. Current USDA dietary guidelines tell all Americans they should eat two to three servings of dairy products every day. This benefits the dairy industry, but it is an injustice to people of color, who are not told that there are many other foods (including green leafy vegetables, soy milk, and tofu) that are excellent sources of calcium. These calcium-rich non-dairy foods are high in many other nutrients as well, and do not contain the cholesterol, sodium, and animal proteins that can hinder calcium absorption.

Ironically, traditional African-American soul food includes many foods that are high in calcium and whose calcium is far more bioavailable than dairy products. Yet these foods — which include greens such as collard greens, kale, mustard greens, and turnip greens — are not portrayed in the government food pyramid0.

On March 8, 1999, the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine formally launched a push to rid U.S. government diet guidelines of such racial biases. One of the organization’s physicians, Milton Mills, M.D., stated: “Although unintentional, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines as they exist are really a fundamental form of institutionalized racism in a rather destructive and insidious format.” Letters of support were presented from the Congressional Black Caucus, former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, M.D., Martin Luther King III, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker, the National Hispanic Medical Association, and many others.

Seeking to remedy the USDA’s unintentional racial bias, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine said: “Although the majority of African, Hispanic, Native, and Asian Americans are lactose intolerant, federal policy recommends that all Americans over the age of two should have dairy products every day. Despite the fact that minorities have higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, and prostate cancer than Caucasians, federal food policy does not promote diets low enough in fat and rich enough in plant products to help reduce their risk of these conditions.”

Federal food policies that supported a whole foods plant-based diet would enhance the health of nearly everyone in the United States, but such policies would be of particular value to those people who are suffering the most grievously under current food policies — people of color. Just as the inequalities of the criminal justice system are allowed to exist when the mainstream white community looks the other way, so does indifference on the part of well meaning whites permit policies and attitudes to prevail that continually and unfairly undermine the health of people of color.

The United States has long been a multi-ethnic “melting pot” of different races, and has undergone racial change throughout its history — but never before at a pace and manner such as today. Within the next fifty years, whites as a share of the total population are expected to decline from 75 percent to under 50 percent. In many localities already, so-called minorities are now in the majority. Few things are more important today than that we wake up together to the negative consequences of the injustice and racial disparities which still pervade our society, and be willing to take individual as well as collective action to bring our lives and our country closer to our ideals of equality and justice.

John Robbins is the author of numerous best-sellers including Diet For A New America and The Food Revolution. To contact him and for information about his work see

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