men August 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the past two years, the life expectancy of African-Americans has dropped to about 71 years, six years less than that of their white counterparts. National disparities in life expectancy may represent the permanence of racism, offering little reason for hope.
But in Manassas Park, Virginia, and Weld County, Colorado, the average life expectancy for black residents is 96 years, a national high among all black citizens by county. Blacks live in their 80s in larger Democratic jurisdictions like Montgomery County, Maryland and smaller Republican districts like Collier County, Florida.
My colleague Jonathan Rothwell and I reported on hundreds of places exceeding common expectations in Brookings’ recently released Black Progress Index, an interactive tool and report developed in partnership with the NAACP that provides a means of understanding health and wellness. of black people and the conditions that shape their lives. Instead of comparing blacks to whites, we look at differences in life expectancy among the black population in different places. This method reveals the places where blacks thrive.
Courtesy of the Brookings Institution.
Researchers often carelessly compare homeownership rates, educational attainment, income, and mortality without paying attention to past and present discrimination that was intended to create disparities. Consequently, broad national averages without context politics and local contexts camouflage the very real progress that is occurring across the country.
Still, in places like Jefferson County, Ohio, the average African American person lives 33 fewer years than Manassas Park, Virginia, and Weld County, Colorado. That gap is equivalent to roughly 100 years of progress in living standards, medical science, and public health. .
Blacks are not a monolith. They have very different results in very different places. Local contexts are just as important as black ones. The lower life expectancy in counties and metropolitan areas across the country suggests that people are losing battles against racism. But the geographic areas where blacks are thriving offer more than hope: people’s civic actions are bringing about positive change.
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What explains these huge differences? Life expectancy, a cumulative measure of health and well-being, summarizes both biological and non-biological influences on our lives. Because race is a sociological and not a biological construct, we must assume that disparities in life expectancy represent differences in nonbiological influences on our lives. Our current life expectancy data suggests that people are breaking down the specific social conditions that influence longevity, giving real reason for optimism.
Using a common machine learning algorithm to select variables and rank their importance, the Index identifies 13 social conditions that predict black life expectancy. Many are what one might expect, such as income, education, housing, and family composition. Others were more surprising, including the main predictor of high black life expectancy: a higher proportion of foreign-born black residents. One standard deviation above the mean on this variable adds one year to the predicted life expectancy of blacks. For example, Brooklyn, NY is in the 89th percentile for life expectancy at 78.5. The more than 43% of King County’s Black residents who are immigrants, ranks it in the 98th percentile among all counties.
The cause of this interpretation is not clear; it may be a pure composition effect, in that foreign-born black Americans enjoy better health than the native black population. However, these data point to a larger question: Is less exposure to American racism good for your health?
At the other end of the spectrum, a surprising predictor of low black life expectancy is religious affiliation. Bearing in mind that all the social determinants that proved to be significant in our study are correlational, not causal. Revoking a church membership will not automatically add years to a person’s life. The challenge is to understand why religious adherence is associated with lower life expectancy. Churchgoers are more likely to be obese, and on the surface, asking “Jesus to take the wheel” may negate any agency we have in influencing our health outcome. We also know that location bias arising from housing devaluation harms families and institutions, including churches, in those locations. More research is needed to discover the conditions and behaviors underlying all the variables that strongly influence life expectancy.
The fact that we notice progress and stagnation in life expectancy for blacks in different places makes it clear that people have agency. The gains and losses reflect that. When we take an overly optimistic or pessimistic view of the state of black America and treat blacks as a monolith, we don’t see localized stories of growth, determination, and prosperity.
The diversity of places where blacks thrive suggests that it has something to do with blacks themselves. In places like Montgomery County, Md., individuals, civil rights groups, organizers, and politicians are dismantling the architecture of inequality that takes years off life.
That said, we still have to examine and discard the overly optimistic position on race relations: that the country has overcome slavery, Jim Crow racism, and the variety of discriminatory policies and their long-term effects. People who hold this perspective claim that America is a level playing field and that with effort, blacks can achieve anything that a white person can.
But places that post a life expectancy below 70 years of age do poorly on environmental or institutional indicators like air quality and schooling, suggesting that life is more difficult in some places due to systematically racist forces. In Lowndes County, Alabama, where Montgomery is the county seat, the life expectancy for blacks is 68.5. In Greenwood, Mississippi, it is 67.3. In Salem, Oregon, life expectancy is 64.4 years.
It’s also worth speculating about the seemingly obvious reason some cities, like Jackson, Mississippi, don’t post rates above 72.6. Jackson has higher home ownership rates than most places (94th percentile) and a higher percentage of business ownership (59th percentile). But the recent water crises show how local Mississippi politics translates into less investment in the city’s water infrastructure, which is reflected in other municipal services that affect life expectancy, such as education.
“Social reforms are moving slowly,” wrote WEB Du Bois, suggesting that we must learn from our circumstances so that we reject intemperance and guilt. “[W]hen Law is bolstered by quiet but persistent Progress, in some way we all feel that it must triumph in the end.”
Society is wrestling with the same struggles around racism that Du Bois faced at the turn of the 20th century. However, we must take the time to recognize the empirical signs of progress and not rush into unsophisticated and false narratives of hopelessness or blind ignorance that eliminate or dismiss our agency. A path of progress requires that we have a clear vision of the social, political and economic landscape in which we live. Acknowledging progress and defeat will make us see the very real capacity for future change. The assumption, supported by data, that black people in places with higher life expectancy played a role in their results should inspire us to look for change in places where discrimination is stealing years from people’s lives.
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