Opinion: California Has Opportunity to Close Racial Health Gap

Photo by iStock/Drazen Zigic

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to highlight what has been true for generations: inequality is killing Black Californians.

At its peak, Black people were dying from COVID-19 at a rate nearly double our share of the state’s population. This horrifying fact should come as no surprise after decades of systemic racism and inaction. The Black community currently has a higher burden of chronic disease than our peers and less access to resources, including health care. Contrary to popular belief, this is not attributable to poverty. Regardless of income level, Black Californians have nearly six years shorter-than-average life expectancies.

Our systems and institutions were not designed to advance health equity and racial justice. It is long past time that we embrace new and different solutions to eliminate racial injustice and it is on all of us to do so. 

That is why we at the California Black Women’s Health Project, along with other health and racial justice organizations, are grateful to the California Legislature for supporting our bold proposal to fund community programs seeking to address factors associated with health outcomes as well as the systemic racism embedded in these systems. The California Health Equity and Racial Justice Fund, supported by over 160 organizations and advocates, would dedicate $100 million annually, a fraction of the state’s historic surplus, to innovative approaches to transform systems, eliminate disparities and improve health outcomes.

Projects supported by the fund would tackle community conditions such as housing, food and water access, police violence, economic stability and jobs, all of which drastically impact the health of communities of color. In order to sustain this change, the fund would also support local efforts for governance and systemic change that advance equity by shifting power to communities. 

The solutions already exist. What we lack is substantial government investment in culturally grounded, community-defined solutions. Instead, these systems reflect a lack of understanding of African American culture, community, lived experiences and trauma. When we seek out care to deal with our physical and mental health needs, we are too often met with a system that dismisses our needs or is ill-equipped to address them. Often, we endure further trauma while pursuing the care we need. We continue to be locked out of decision-making that impacts how health services are designed, provided and funded. This must change if California desires a future that values all of its residents.

Sisters Mentally Mobilized is a culturally grounded, community-defined solution. Through this advocate training program, Black women across California are trained to be mental health advocates and activists while coming together in “sister circles,” a nationally recognized support group model of engagement that has been part of our community for decades. By reducing mental health stigma, isolation and anxiety, our sister circles serve as an effective form of mental illness prevention and early intervention.

California Black Women’s Health Project has trained nearly 100 Black women advocates across the state—with the goal of increasing our community’s capacity to fill in the racial gaps in mental health care access. In order to sustain this work, we are calling for a renewed investment in the California Reducing Disparities Project, a groundbreaking initiative to develop culturally responsive mental health programs. The COVID-19 pandemic magnified historical health and economic disparities, and our community is bracing for widespread “post-COVID-stress-disorder.” Renewed investment in community-defined cultural interventions is critical. 

Initiatives like Sister Mentally Mobilized—where communities take care of each other in the face of a system that hasn’t—exist across the state. With dedicated funding, we could make a transformational investment in developing and scaling other community approaches. We thank the Legislature for making a commitment to health and equity by investing in the California Health Equity and Racial Justice Fund and we urge Governor Newsom to support this initiative. Amid an ongoing pandemic, rising support for racial justice and a historic state budget surplus, there are no excuses for ignoring these urgent and deadly issues. 

Sonya Young Aadam is the CEO of the California Black Women’s Health Project, a statewide, nonprofit organization committed to improving the health of California’s 1.2 million Black women and girls through advocacy, education, outreach and policy. This article was written in collaboration with the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN), a statewide health advocacy organization focusing on racial and ethnic health disparities.

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