Helping Boys of Color Thrive: Healthy Communities are Key

Pamela Merritt

Research finds that systemic community factors adversely affect the health outcomes and life options of African-American and Latino boys and young men.

Healthy Communities Matter – that’s the title of a report presenting new research funded by The California Endowment.  Healthy Communities Matter: The Importance of Place to the Health of Boys of Color is the result of combined, independent research studies from RAND Corporation, PolicyLink, The Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Drexel University and The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. The research finds that African-American and Latino boys and young men are much more likely to experience poor health outcomes than white boys and young men. The study goes on to point out that most of these health disparities are directly related to the neighborhoods where the subjects grow up. 

When I first read the title of the study I thought that it was about environmental issues like water quality, poor air quality or exposure to lead.  But Healthy Communities Matter: The Importance of Place to the Health of Boys of Color is the first comprehensive report about how place is a predictor of health and delves into the role living in neighborhoods plagued by poverty and violence plays in the health of boys and young men.  Moreover, the study finds that unhealthy communities directly contribute to African-American and Latino boys suffering worse health outcomes than their peers. 

I was reminded of a late-night discussion about this issue when I was in my first year college.  A friend shared the physical and emotional impact of growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Memphis.  I sat back and listened as she spoke of poor air quality, grocery stores lacking vegetables and fruit, unsafe housing, but she also talked about violence and families torn apart by long-term incarceration.  She shared her frustration over the tolerance the broader community seemed to have toward the problems facing her neighborhood.  My friend felt then that many people living in surrounding areas seemed to accept conditions in her neighborhood that they would never tolerate in their own community.  I was fascinated by her theory that all of these factors played a role in the physical and mental health of her neighbors. 

Healthy Communities Matter reveals the impact living in an unhealthy community has on young men and boys of color.  The study does not dismiss the impact on everyone else living in those communities.  As Susan Eaton, Research Director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard Law School, points out:

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“It’s not just that there’s a higher incidence of African-American and Latino children living in poverty…It’s that poverty is generally harsher for African-American and Latino children.”

African-American boys and young men are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); Latino boys and young men are 4.1 times more likely to suffer from PTSD. Some of the greatest disparities in the RAND research were for African-American homicide-related death rates. Young African-American men have a homicide death rate at least 16 times greater than that of young white men; young Latino men have a homicide rate 5 times greater than that of young white men.

The research questions whether schools, the juvenile justice system, courts, health care providers, and mental health providers are successfully serving the needs of young men and boys. Many of those institutions take a punitive approach that fails to take into account or address the impact of unhealthy neighborhoods of young men and boys of color.

Recommendations made in Health Communities Matter include:

  • making health care services easier and more convenient to access in communities;
  • ensuring that strategies for improving health address the ways in certain kinds of communities limit like physical activity and/or healthy eating, and other conditions that affect healthy behaviors; and
  • changing systemic factors in schools, in health systems and in workforce systems that adversely affect children and teens.

A lot of time has passed since my friend shared her theory about the role a person’s neighborhood plays in their health, but not much has changed.  In my home city of St. Louis, Missouri and in cities across the nation, it is easy to avoid “bad” neighborhoods.  If a person selects a certain route to work, lives in a certain city neighborhood and frequents just the right shopping area they can circumnavigate those “bad” neighborhoods and enjoy the temporary benefits of out of sight = out of mind.  But as we begin to implement health care reform we have an opportunity to incorporate the findings of Healthy Communities Matter and help ensure that the needs of all communities are met. 

For more information about Healthy Communities Matter: The Importance of Place to the Health of Boys of Color and to read the full reports from RAND, PolicyLink, the Houston Institute and Drexel, visit www.calendow.org/bmoc.

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