Being Black in America Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

In Baltimore and other segregated cities, the life-expectancy gap between African Americans and whites is as much as 20 years. One young woman’s struggle shows why.

By Olga Khazan | The Atlantic | July 4, 2018

One morning this past September, Kiarra Boulware boarded the 26 bus to Baltimore’s Bon Secours Hospital, where she would seek help for the most urgent problem in her life: the 200-some excess pounds she carried on her 5-foot-2-inch frame.

To Kiarra, the weight sometimes felt like a great burden, and at other times like just another fact of life. She had survived a childhood marred by death, drugs, and violence. She had recently gained control over her addiction to alcohol, which, last summer, had brought her to a residential recovery center in the city’s Sandtown neighborhood, made famous by the Freddie Gray protests in 2015. But she still struggled with binge eating—so much so that she would eat entire plates of quesadillas or mozzarella sticks in minutes.As the bus rattled past rowhouses and corner stores, Kiarra told me she hadn’t yet received the Cpap breathing machine she needed for her sleep apnea. The extra fat seemed to constrict her airways while she slept, and a sleep study had shown that she stopped breathing 40 times an hour. She remembered one doctor saying, “I’m scared you’re going to die in your sleep.” In the haze of alcoholism, she’d never followed up on the test. Now doctors at Bon Secours were trying to order the machine for her, but insurance hurdles had gotten in the way. Kiarra’s weight brought an assortment of old-person problems to her 27-year-old life: sleep apnea, diabetes, and menstrual dysregulation, which made her worry she would never have children. For a while, she’d ignored these issues. Day to day, her size mostly made it hard to shop for clothes. But the severity of her situation sank in when a diabetic friend had to have a toe amputated. Kiarra visited the woman in the hospital. She saw her tears and her red, bandaged foot, and resolved not to become an amputee herself.Kiarra arrived at the hospital early and waited in the cafeteria. Bon Secours is one of several world-class hospitals in Baltimore. Another, Johns Hopkins Hospital, is in some respects the birthplace of modern American medicine, having invented everything from the medical residency to the surgical glove. But of course not even the best hospitals in America can keep you from getting sick in the first place.It was lunchtime, but Kiarra didn’t have any cash—her job, working the front desk at the recovery center where she lived, paid a stipend of just $150 a week. When she did have money, she often sought comfort in fast food. But when her cash and food stamps ran out, she sometimes had what she called “hungry nights,” when she went to bed without having eaten anything all day.When I’d first met Kiarra, a few months earlier, I’d been struck by how upbeat she seemed. Her recovery center—called Maryland Community Health Initiatives, but known in the neighborhood as Penn North—sits on a grimy street crowded with men selling drugs. Some of the center’s clients, fresh off their habits, seemed withdrawn, or even morose.Kiarra, though, had the bubbly demeanor of a student-council president.She described the rough neighborhoods where she’d grown up as fun and “familylike.” She said that although neither of her parents had been very involved when she was a kid, her grandparents had provided a loving home. Regarding her diabetes, she told me she was “grateful that it’s reversible.” After finishing her addiction treatment, she planned to reenroll in college and move into a dorm.Now, though, a much more anxious Kiarra sat before her doctor, a young white man named Tyler Gray, who began by advising Kiarra to get a Pap smear.“Do we have to do it today?” she asked.“Is there something you’re concerned about or nervous about?,” Gray asked.Kiarra was nervous about a lot of things. She “deals by not dealing,” as she puts it, but lately she’d had to deal with so much. “Ever since the diabetes thing, I hate hearing I have something else,” she said softly, beginning to cry. “I’ve been fat for what seems like so long, and now I get all the fat problems.”“I don’t want to be fat,” she added, “but I don’t know how to not be fat.”

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Kiarra resolved to get healthy after visiting a diabetic friend in the hospital who’d had her toe amputated.  Kiarra’s own diabetes is already causing her vision to blur. Photo by Jared Soares


Kiarra’s struggles with her weight are imbued with this sense, that getting thin is a mystery she might never solve, that diet secrets are literally secret. On a Sunday, she might diligently make a meal plan for the week, only to find herself reaching for Popeyes fried chicken by Wednesday. She blames herself for her poor health—as do many of the people I met in her community, where obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are ubiquitous. They said they’d made bad choices. They used food, and sometimes drugs, to soothe their pain. But these individual failings are only part of the picture.In Baltimore, a 20-year gap in life expectancy exists between the city’s poor, largely African American neighborhoods and its wealthier, whiter areas. A baby born in Cheswolde, in Baltimore’s far-northwest corner, can expect to live until age 87. Nine miles away in Clifton-Berea, near where The Wire was filmed, the life expectancy is 67, roughly the same as that of Rwanda, and 12 years shorter than the American average. Similar disparities exist in other segregated cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago.

These cities are among the most extreme examples of a national phenomenon: Across the United States, black people suffer disproportionately from some of the most devastating health problems, from cancer deaths and diabetes to maternal mortality and preterm births. Although the racial disparity in early death has narrowed in recent decades, black people have the life expectancy, nationwide, that white people had in the 1980s—about three years shorter than the current white life expectancy. African Americans face a greater risk of death at practically every stage of life.

Except in the case of a few specific ailments, such as nondiabetic kidney disease, scientists have largely failed to identify genetic differences that might explain racial health disparities. The major underlying causes, many scientists now believe, are social and environmental forces that affect African Americans more than most other groups.To better understand how these forces work, I spent nearly a year reporting in Sandtown and other parts of Baltimore. What I found in Kiarra’s struggle was the story of how one person’s efforts to get better—imperfect as they may have been—were made vastly more difficult by a daunting series of obstacles. But it is also a bigger story, of how African Americans became stuck in profoundly unhealthy neighborhoods, and of how the legacy of racism can literally take years off their lives. Far from being a relic of the past, America’s racist and segregationist history continues to harm black people in the most intimate of ways—seeping into their lungs, their blood, even their DNA.

When Kiarra was a little girl, Baltimore was, as it is today, mired in violence, drugs, and poverty. In 1996, the city had the highest rate of drug-related emergency-room visits in the nation and one of the country’s highest homicide rates.  With her father in and out of jail for robbery and drug dealing, Kiarra and her mother, three siblings, and three cousins piled into her grandmother’s home. It was a joyous but chaotic household. Kiarra describes her grandmother as “God’s assistant”—a deeply religious woman who, despite a house bursting with hungry mouths, would still make an extra dinner for the addicts on the block. Kiarra’s mother, meanwhile, was “the hood princess,” a woman who would do her hair just to go to the grocery store. She was a teen mom, like her own mother had been.

Many facets of Kiarra’s youth—the fact that her parents weren’t together, her father’s incarceration, the guns on the corners—are what researchers consider “adverse childhood experiences,” stressful events early in life that can cause health problems in adulthood. An abnormally large proportion of the children in Baltimore—nearly a third—have two or more aces. People with four or more aces are seven times as likely to be alcoholics as people with no aces, and twice as likely to have heart disease. One study found that six or more aces can cut life expectancy by as much as 20 years. Kiarra had at least six.

She and others I interviewed recall the inner-city Baltimore of their youth fondly. Everyone lived crammed together with siblings and cousins, but people looked out for one another; neighbors hosted back-to-school cookouts every year, and people took pride in their homes. Kiarra ran around with the other kids on the block until her grandma called her in each night at 8 o’clock. She made the honor roll in fifth grade and got to speak in front of the whole class. She read novels by Sister Souljah and wrote short stories in longhand.Yet Kiarra also describes some jarring incidents. When she was 8, she heard a loud bop bop bop outside and ran out to find her stepbrother lying in the street, dead. One friend died of asthma in middle school; another went to jail, then hanged himself. (Other people I spoke with around Penn North and other recovery facilities had similarly traumatic experiences. It seemed like every second person I met told me they had been molested as a child, and even more said their family members had struggled with addiction.)

Kiarra told me she got pregnant by a friend when she was 12, and gave birth to a boy when she was 13. Within a year, the baby died unexpectedly, and Kiarra was so traumatized that she ended up spending more than a month in a psychiatric hospital. When she came home, her boyfriend physically and sexually abused her. He “slapped me so hard, I was seeing stars,” she said.She took solace in eating, a common refuge for victims of abuse. One 2013 study of thousands of women found that those who had been severely physically or sexually abused as children had nearly double the risk of food addiction. Kiarra ate “everything, anything,” she said, “mostly bad foods, junk food, pizza,” along with chicken boxes—the fried-chicken-and-fries combos slung by Baltimore’s carryout joints.At first, she thought the extra weight looked good on her. Then she started feeling fat. Eventually, she said, “it was like, Fuck it. I’m fat.” As her high-school graduation approached, she tried on the white gown she’d bought just weeks earlier and realized that it was already too tight.

Kiarra didn’t know many college-educated people, but she wanted to go to Spelman, a historically black college in Georgia, and join a sorority. Her family talked her out of applying, she said. Instead, she enrolled in one local college after another, but she kept dropping out, sometimes to help her siblings with their children and other times because she simply lost interest. After accumulating $30,000 in student loans, she had only a year’s worth of credits.

So Kiarra put college on hold and worked at Kmart and as a home health aide—solid jobs but, as she likes to say, “not my ceiling.” She longed for a purpose. Sometimes, she had an inkling that she was meant to be an important person; she would picture herself giving a speech to an auditorium full of people. But she remained depressed, stuck, and, increasingly, obese.

She began doing ecstasy, and, later, downing a pint of vodka a day. She remembers coming to her home-health-aide job drunk one time and leaving a patient on the toilet. “Did you forget me?” the woman asked, half an hour later. Kiarra broke down crying.

Soon after, she checked into Penn North for her first try at recovery. This past year’s attempt is her third.

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In the early 1900s, blacks in Baltimore disproportionately suffered from tuberculosis, so much so that one area not far from Penn North was known as the “lung block.” In 1907, an investigator hired by local charities described what she saw in Meyer Court, a poor area in Baltimore. The contents of an outdoor toilet “were found streaming down the center of this narrow court to the street beyond,” she wrote. The smell within one house was “ ‘sickening’ … No provision of any kind is made for supplying the occupants of this court with water.” Yet one cause, the housing investigator concluded, was the residents’ “low standards and absence of ideals.”

When blacks tried to flee to better areas, some had their windows smashed and their steps smeared with tar. In 1910, a Yale-educated black lawyer named George McMechen moved into a house in a white neighborhood, and Baltimore reacted by adopting a segregation ordinance that The New York Times called “the most pronounced ‘Jim Crow’ measure on record.” Later, neighborhood associations urged homeowners to sign covenants promising never to sell to African Americans.

Some of Baltimore’s rowhouses are so long-forsaken, they have trees growing through the windows. They are in themselves harmful to people’s health.

For much of the 20th century, the Federal Housing Administration declined to insure mortgages for blacks, who instead had to buy homes by signing contracts with speculators who demanded payments that, in many cases, amounted to most of the buyer’s income. (As a result, many black families never reaped the gains of homeownership—a key source of Americans’ wealth.) Housing discrimination persisted well beyond the Jim Crow years, as neighborhood associations rejected proposals to build low-income housing in affluent suburbs. In the 1990s, house flippers would buy up homes in Baltimore’s predominantly black neighborhoods and resell them to unsuspecting first-time home buyers at inflated prices by using falsified documents. The subsequent foreclosures are a major reason so many properties in the city sit vacant today.

Some of Baltimore’s rowhouses are so long-forsaken, they have trees growing through the windows. These dilapidated homes are in themselves harmful to people’s health. Neighborhoods with poorly maintained houses or a large number of abandoned properties, for instance, face a high risk of mouse infestation. Every year, more than 5,000 Baltimore children go to the emergency room for an asthma attack—and according to research from Johns Hopkins, mouse allergen is the biggest environmental factor in those attacks.

The allergen, found in mouse urine, travels through the air on dust, and Johns Hopkins researchers have found high levels of it on most of the beds of poor Baltimore kids they have tested. When kids inhale the allergen, it can spark inflammation and mucus buildup in their lungs, making them cough and wheeze. These attacks can cause long-term harm: Children with asthma are more likely to be obese and in overall poorer health as adults. Getting rid of the mice requires sealing up cracks and holes in the house—a process that can cost thousands of dollars, given the state of many Baltimore homes.

The mice, of course, are just one symptom of the widespread neglect that can set in once neighborhoods become as segregated as Baltimore’s are. One study estimated that, in the year 2000, racial segregation caused 176,000 deaths—about as many as were caused by strokes.All summer, Penn North’s aging air conditioners strained against the soupy heat outside. For Kiarra, the first few months at the recovery center felt like boot camp. The staff woke the residents before 7 a.m., even if they didn’t have anywhere in particular to be.Kiarra’s days were packed with therapies: acupuncture in the mornings, meant to help reduce cravings; individual meetings with peer counselors; Narcotics Anonymous sessions, in which dozens of strangers slumped on metal folding chairs and told stories of past drug binges.

Once a week, Kiarra would leave her post at the front desk and walk across an empty playground for an appointment with her psychotherapist, Ms. Bea (who asked that I not use her full name). Kiarra would climb the steep, narrow staircase of Penn North’s clinical building, then stop at the landing to catch her breath.

Ms. Bea’s goal was to help Kiarra understand how her substance abuse, her weight, and her difficult childhood were interconnected. Like many young people in Baltimore, Kiarra had spent her life trying to attain ordinary things—love, respect—that seemed always to skid beyond her grasp. She wanted male attention, but then she got pregnant. The baby made her happy, but the baby died. Her siblings started having kids and she loved them, but she was jealous. She fell into a deep-sink depression. She’d eat a second dinner, then get so drunk that she’d scream at her friends. She’d realize that she was going to wake up to a blistering hangover and would keep drinking. It was coming anyway, so why not? “Struggle days,” she called these times.

During one appointment in August, Kiarra told Ms. Bea that she had been attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings by phone. Something another member had shared, about why people are sometimes reluctant to shed weight, had stuck with her. “He was saying when you lose the fat, you lose a part of you,” Kiarra recalled.

A few years earlier, she had founded a club for plus-size women called Beautiful Beyond Weight, with some of her best friends. The goal was to help overweight women feel better about themselves. They put on fashion shows that she described as “Beyoncé big, but on a Christina Aguilera budget.” She worried that if she lost too much weight, the other girls in the club would think she was a hypocrite. She decided she would aim to be “slim-thicc”—not too skinny. “So imagine if you were a size 14,” Ms. Bea said. “What would be happening here—with you?”

Ms. Bea was trying to help Kiarra see how she sometimes uses her size as a form of protection, a way of making her feel invisible to men, so that she could eventually work through her fear.

In Kiarra’s experience, disappearing could be useful. She told me that once, when she was 17, before she had gotten so big, she met a guy in an online chat room. She went over to his place, where they watched TV and started having sex. But then—the skid—his three friends barged into the room and raped her. She fled, half-dressed, as soon as she could.

“Yeah,” Kiarra said, envisioning herself many sizes smaller. “I wouldn’t be able to take it.”

Kiarra has trouble concentrating sometimes, and she thinks the reason might be that she and her brother were exposed to lead from old paint. When Kiarra was 6, her grandmother heard that a girl living in another property owned by the same landlord had been hospitalized. She took Kiarra to get tested. The results showed that the concentration of lead in her blood was more than six times the level the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers elevated—an amount that can irreversibly lower IQ and reduce attention span. Kiarra, too, was hospitalized, for a month.

Scientists and industry experts knew in the 19th century that lead paint was dangerous. “Lead is a merciless poison,” an executive with a Michigan lead-paint company admitted in a book in 1892. It “gradually affects the nerves and organs of circulation to such a degree that it is next to impossible to restore them to their normal condition.” But as late as the 1940s and ’50s, trade groups representing companies that made lead products, including the Lead Industries Association, promoted the use of lead paint in homes and successfully lobbied for the repeal of restrictions on that use. Lead-paint companies published coloring books and advised their salesmen to “not forget the children—some day they may be customers.” According to TheBaltimore Sun, a study in 1956 found that lead-poisoned children in the slums of Baltimore had six times as much lead in their systems as severely exposed workers who handled lead for a living.

In speeches and publications, Lead Industries Association officials cast childhood lead poisoning as vanishingly rare. When they did acknowledge the problem, they blamed “slum” children for chewing on wood surfaces—“gnaw-ledge,” as Manfred Bowditch, the group’s health-and-safety director, called it—and their “ignorant parents” for allowing them to do so. In a letter to the Baltimore health department, Bowditch called the lead-poisoned toddlers “little human rodents.”

Even after stricter regulations came along, landlords in segregated neighborhoods—as well as the city’s own public-housing agency—neglected properties, allowing old paint to chip and leaded dust to accumulate. Some landlords, seeking to avoid the expense of renovating homes and the risk of tenant lawsuits, refused to rent to families with children, since they would face the greatest risk from lead exposure. Poor families feared that if they complained about lead, they might be evicted.

Partly because of Maryland’s more rigorous screening, the state’s lead-poisoning rate for children was 15 times the national average in the ’90s; the majority of the poisoned children lived in the poor areas of Baltimore. In some neighborhoods, 70 percent of children had been exposed to lead. The city’s under-resourced agencies failed to address the problem. Clogged by landlords who hid behind shell companies, Baltimore’s lead-paint enforcement system had ground to a halt by the time Kiarra was poisoned. According to Tapping Into The Wire, a book co-authored by Peter L. Beilenson, the city’s former health commissioner, Baltimore didn’t bring a single lead-paint enforcement action against landlords in the ’90s. (A subsequent crackdown on landlords has lowered lead-poisoning rates dramatically.)

When Kiarra was 14, her family sued their landlord for damages, but their lawyer dropped the case because the landlord claimed he had no money and no insurance with which to compensate