Am I Next?

Attention Span, Health Disparities, and Obesity

America is having a moment. Civil unrest and a still-unfolding pandemic display a gaping wound in the public life of this nation. Disparities in justice and health are impossible to ignore and it shows up in the disparate effects of obesity on racial and ethnic minorities.

Attention Span and the Possibilities for Change

As distressing as these times are, they are bringing the possibilities for real change. We are seeing broad support for real change and justice – long overdue. Serious conversations about health disparities are gaining momentum. These conversations have the real potential to bring meaningful action. Maybe.

But words of caution come from historian Jon Meacham:

History happens with rapidity. We are in that kind of moment and what it requires is the capacity to both react in the moment in terms of leadership, but also a sustained attention to something that requires attention.

We need to be very careful in not proving Dr. King right about something he said at the Kennedy funeral in 1963. Walter Fauntroy said to him, “Well, we’re certainly going to get the civil rights bill now.”

Dr. King turned to him and said, “We’re a 10 day nation, Walter.” We pay attention for about 10 days. Reality doesn’t track with our attention span. The test of citizenship is the capacity to pay attention to the real problems – whether it’s policing, economic, or public health.

In other words, we are standing on the cusp of real possibilities. Translating those possibilities – for racial justice and for health equity – into reality will very much depend upon the action we all take.

The Root of Disparities in Obesity

Just like diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, and certain cancers, obesity is a chronic disease that affects the population very broadly. But disparities in the effects of obesity are so apparent because of systemic racism that affects every aspect of life for people of color. Disparate economics, education, nutrition, and even the stress caused by everyday racism come into play. And then, disparities in obesity care adds further to the problem. Thus, obesity progresses when left untreated and it brings the further burden of a host of other chronic diseases.

Weight bias also multiplies the harm of racial and ethnic bias.

Reason for Hope

Yet, we have good reason for hope. Implicit race bias – far from being behind us – is trending in the right direction over the last ten years. The public seems serious right now about the imperative to put an end to police violence directed at people of color. Even health disparities are getting serious attention.

Though we are indeed making progress in obesity care, it’s not yet clear that this progress will soon reach communities of color. But the time is now to press hard on all fronts. Fatima Cody Stanford is the new chair of the Minority Affairs Section for the American Medical Association. She advises that:

To tackle the large problems of our day – which include issues such as obesity, disparities, and racism – will require a concerted long-term approach. It’s important to note that any great challenge requires great solutions. Great solutions do not come overnight. They require a great sense of determination and resilience.

Click here. here, here, here, and here for more on racism and obesity. For more on this historic opportunity for change, click here, here, and here.

Am I Next? Photograph © Geoff Livingston / flickr

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June 11, 2020