Adapting to our new multichromatic mosaic
By Leo Canty
Published: Thursday, December 3, 2009 12:08 PM EST
“It don’t matter if you’re black or white,” Michael Jackson once sang. It would be great if we could say the same thing about our country. But we can’t … yet.
About 45 years ago our monochromatic nation’s composition was close to 90 percent Caucasian. America’s white-centric ways dominated everything, from business to government to educational institutions. The culture and upbringing of the population in those times has been a driving force for much of what we do and how we do it now.
But scroll forward 45 years. It’s projected that the U.S. will be less than 45 percent white — quite the demographic swing towards a more multihued melting pot. As that shift is now under way, our culture, language, and behavior patterns are shifting and reforming — quite rapidly — into a new American mosaic.Unfortunately, white American customs are not changing at the same speed. And when it comes to health care, we are moving even slower.
In 2006 the Institutes of Medicine issued a report that concluded we have a problem with disparities in health care for people of color and cultures beyond our traditional pallor. Newer research shows serious differences when comparing minority populations such as African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics with whites. Some minority groups have higher incidence rates of chronic diseases, higher mortality, and generally worse health outcomes.
There are many disease-specific cases of racial and ethnic disparities. For instance, cancer incidence rates among African-Americans are 10 percent higher than for whites. Adult African-Americans and Hispanics have near twice the risk as whites of getting diabetes. And there’s plenty of evidence showing serious problems in how people of different racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds are treated when they get into our traditional health-care environment.
There’s now a better flow of new information that’s coming out for this old and neglected issue. To fix it we need to become more aware of how and why it happens. Then comes the hard part: embracing the fact that our own cultural character may need to change.
New knowledge, new skills, and new beliefs must be consciously put in play to help us adapt to our national color and cultural shift. Medical practices need to be updated to meet the challenges of a dramatic shift in cultural and racial diversity. It doesn’t happen automatically. We essentially need to be reprogrammed at all levels, and Caucasian leaders need to be in the vanguard of change.
Add the numbers and the whole picture shows our country’s face and make-up are changing faster than the transformation needed to end health disparities. There’s been little time to collect and assess data and alter behaviors to help dissolve the problem.But there are signs of hope. The Sustinet health-care bill that survived Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s veto pen became a public act that calls for a panel of experts to examine racial and ethnic disparities, and put in place solutions to stem poorer health-care outcomes for nonwhite citizens.
Sure, sensible public policy is critical to reducing disparities. The wonk in me gets that. But something bigger is at work here. We need to better understand our diversity.
America’s palette is destined to be multichromatic. That’s a beautiful thing. We get to look at and learn more about the rainbow of human presence and how wonderfully different we are. In my book, this is a far sight better than the 1950s, when we all looked and acted the same.
But all of this change — this busting of molds — is going to be hard, especially for the dominant culture that fears losing its grip on numerical advantages. It’s incumbent on all of us to embrace and adapt — the sooner, the better. And we should do so not only because it makes moral sense, which it does, but because it also makes economic sense. We’re spending way too much money on health care and getting too little in return to accept the senseless costs of disparate racial outcomes.
Put another way, it shouldn’t matter if you’re African-American or Caucasian … or Hispanic or Asian or Native American.
I like that song better.
Leo Canty is a labor and political activist. He lives in Windsor.
All CT@Work columns can be found at www.ctatwork.blogspot.com.