The fact that majority-Black communities in Chicago are more likely to have residents with health issues and shorter life expectancies than other communities was hardly news to the members of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s Health and Wellness Committee. But a recent Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) report shared during the committee’s Nov. 16 meeting puts some hard numbers behind that well-known reality.
The State of Health for Blacks report found that, between 2012 and 2017, the life expectancy gap between Black and non-Black Chicagoans increased from 8.3 years to 9.2 years. Although there were a number of reasons for the increase, the authors cited five driving factors: chronic disease, violent crime, infant mortality, infectious disease and opioid overdoses.
Most notably, the report found that, in Chicago, African-Americans were twice as likely to die of diabetes and three times more likely to die of opioid overdoses than non-Black residents. The report also found that Black babies were three times more likely to die in their first year of life and half of all Chicagoans who live with HIV are Black.
The report was created by five Black women who work for the health department: Research specialist Rachelle Paul-Brutus, Program Director Donna Scrutchins and epidemiologists Blair Aikens, Dana Harper and Yaa Simpson. The women started work on the report in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic made their work more urgent, they said. The report’s authors urged the health committee members to use those numbers to advocate for the communities they serve and push for changes.
Paul-Brutus said that while “inequity is everywhere you look,” they decided to focus on life expectancy. They wanted to create a report that anyone could read and that could be easily shared. While much of the data was collected before the pandemic, they said that it’s still relevant.
“For the first time in 200 years, we’ve got a publication that’s for Blacks by Blacks,” Simpson added. “We have our specialties, but we really wanted to [figure out] how to make Black lives better, how to extend life expectancy.”
The report looks at the 23 community areas that are at least 80 percent Black and overlaid them against 25 community areas that experienced “high economic hardship.” While many South Side Black communities don’t face high economic hardship, the correlation is stark on the West Side. Twelve community areas fell into both categories, including Austin, East Garfield Park, North Lawndale and West Garfield Park
The report found that 1 in 7 African-Americans, or roughly 14 percent of Chicago’s Black population, die of causes other than old age, compared to 1 out of 29, or 3.5 percent, of non-Black Chicagoans.
“That’s four times more common among Black Chicagoans than among non-Black Chicagoans,” Paul-Brutus said. “So we need to be asking, ‘What’s going on?’”
Committee Chairwoman Debra Wesley, who also heads Sinai Health System’s Sinai Community Institute, 2653 W. Ogden Ave., said that she thought the report was “fabulous” and that she will act on the information it contains.
“This is about how we take this powerful information and put this power [toward] changing our narrative,” she said. “I think it should be the guide of the work we’re trying to do in North Lawndale. This information tells us why it should be done. I don’t think we have a choice.”
Gina Walton, Sinai’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, said she was pleased that Black women compiled the report and said it could help change the conversation for people who may not believe systemic racism is real.
“That’s the tricky part, because we want to see people acknowledge it first,” she said. “The problem is that many people don’t want to do something about it and there is a group of people who don’t know what they can do about it.”
The complete report is available online at http://www.chicago.gov/BlackHealth.