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Harvard research blames ‘white supremacy,’ ‘capitalism’ for pregnant black moms’ health problems

Study: Policy changes needed to ‘dismantle structural racism’

Capitalism, “white supremacy,” and “structural racism” are to blame for the high rate of black maternal health problems in the U.S., according to a new study out of Harvard University.

The study, “A conceptual understanding of the impact of interconnected forms of racism on maternal hypertension through Black Women’s lived experiences,” asserts that black women have disproportionately high maternal mortality and hypertension rates because of systemic racism.

To solve the problem and “truly dismantle structural racism … it is absolutely necessary to attend to the underlying ideologies that allow these inequities in resources and opportunities to continue, especially capitalism and white supremacy,” Harvard fellow and lead researcher Brittney Francis wrote in the study, published in August in SSM – Qualitative Research in Health. 

Black communities are “plagued by policies and practices, steeped in white supremacist and racial capitalistic ideologies, that directly shape their access to resources and opportunities,” states the study, which primarily came from the FXB Center for Health & Human Rights at Harvard University.

As a result, black women have higher maternal mortality and hypertension rates, the researchers wrote.

Asked to explain “racial capitalism,” Francis told The College Fix via email it “refers to a capitalistic system” where people are “intentionally exploited and commodified” by the “dominant” racial group to get rich. She gave the example of individuals being asked about prior incarceration status in housing and job assistance programs.

While the Civil Rights Act prohibits explicit racial discrimination, she told The Fix that many practices still discriminate by focusing on areas that “disproportionately impact one racial group over the others.”

“Because mass incarceration unjustly impacts Black and Hispanic families in the U.S., these families are also really impacted by this policy/practice more,” Francis said via email to The Fix this month. Therefore, asking about prior incarceration “excludes many families that need immediate assistance with resources during critical times, including pregnancy,” she said.

Asked to weigh in, one healthcare watchdog organization argued there appears to be flaws with the research methods and conclusion.

“This ‘study’ presupposes racism and then seeks evidence in favor of their conclusion. Their approach is a flagrant violation of sound research practice,” Ian Kingsbury, director of research at Do No Harm, told The College Fix.

For the study, researchers asked 20 black women in Connecticut who had a hypertensive disorder during their last pregnancy about their neighborhoods, interactions with healthcare providers, and other “experiences with structural racism in their daily lives.”

Prior to asking the women for input, the research team “shared the importance of the study, how it aligned with their personal and professional goals,” and “the intended purposes of the data after collection.”

Kingsbury told The College Fix these statements likely slanted the participants’ responses.

“The researchers tipped off or even explicitly told the participants what they were hoping to observe,” raising questions of quality assurance and input bias, he said.

The researchers used the interviews to identify five “domains of institutional racism” that negatively impacted women’s health, including “environmental pollution,” according to the study. For example, some women brought up noise pollution due to “constant police presence and sirens” in their neighborhoods.

The researchers cited two recent studies that found a link between “increased environmental noise pollution” and preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication, and suggested the same might be true of hypertensive disorders in pregnancy.

Then, they linked pollution to systemic racism, writing that “the sources and exposure to some of these pollutants may be rooted in inequitable practices and policies at the local, state and federal levels that allow for disparate exposure to toxins, especially in low-income and predominantly Black neighborhoods.”

However, the study appears confusing in places. A graphic highlighted in the research, Figure 1, lists 16 areas of concern, but some of the problems mentioned are not discussed in the study. Figure 1 states that “voter suppression” and “food apartheid” are among the “policies and practices, steeped in white supremacist and racial capitalistic ideologies,” but the study does not mention either.

The Fix pointed out to Francis that “voter suppression” was mentioned in Figure 1 but not the study itself, and asked how it is significant to her research.

Francis responded: “When district lines are intentionally drawn to limit or skew political power, often based on racial demographics … or voter ID laws become so restrictive that people who have the right to vote are deemed ineligible, the political power in that community and their ability to vote and advocate for policies that would improve their health is diminished.”

However, Kingsbury told The College Fix that some of the study’s assertions about racial inequalities are outright false, including “inequitable education funding.”

“Another (‘inequitable immigration policy’) is just an intellectually incoherent attempt to shoehorn leftist policy preferences into this ‘study,’” Kingsbury said.

Francis and the other researchers concluded the study with a call for “holistic policy changes” to address problems with Black maternal health care. They said laws and public policy are key to mitigating “the health harms caused by structural racism.”

Throughout the paper, the researchers extensively discussed racial inequality. However, they limited their study to Black women and did not include data or interviews involving other racial groups to compare inequities.

Francis told The Fix she would consider including non-black participants in future research. She said she would like to see more studies about the effects of racism in racially marginalized communities on maternal outcomes.

MORE: Pregnant black female math professor set to be fired for refusing COVID vaccine

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About the Author
Kenzi Bustamante -- University of Chicago