Sick Neighborhoods Create Barriers to Health for Men of Color

Exploring community wellness as a collective whole, we see a grim prognosis emerging from the social systems surrounding Black and Latino men and boys.

By Michelle Chen Jul 22, 2010

Your neighborhood may be hazardous to your health. A new report by the California Endowment* looks at the intersection of gender, race and health from an unconventional angle: not in terms of "women’s issues" like reproductive health and prenatal care, but through the health gaps that men and boys face in communities of color. Exploring community wellness as a collective whole, we see a grim prognosis emerging from the social systems surrounding Black and Latino men and boys. According to one study cited in the report, segregation and poverty track poor children of color toward instability in adolescence: "the characteristics of high-poverty neighborhoods that negatively affect mental health include crowding, noise, indoor air quality and a dearth of outdoor space to play." Contrary to the standard "personal responsibility" rhetoric, the research points out the link between unhealthy environments and unhealthy behavior, such as poor eating habits driven by "fewer food choices and chronic stress" in segregated poor neighborhoods. Drawing on research by the RAND Corporation, the report suggests that the traumatic impacts of unhealthy urban environments are too often dismissed as crime or delinquency, and that conventional interventions may do more harm than good:

• Trauma is seldom explored by the array of systems – schools, juvenile justice, courts, health care, mental health – assigned to help boys and young men of color. • Those institutions often take a punitive rather than healing approach to these young men, interpreting their symptoms as a sign that they are delinquents or sociopaths rather than a sign of both physical and emotional traumatic injury.

Compared to their white peers, the risk of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder is four times higher for Latino male youth, 2.5 times higher for Black male youth. The most extreme health impact is death. "Young African-American men (15-24) have a homicide death rate at least 16 times greater than that of young white men. Latino young men have a homicide death rate five times greater than that of young white men." While the lack of insurance and community-based medical care are critical problems for Black and Latino youth, the California Endowment report calls for a more holistic remedy. Focusing on an often forgotten demographic–the needs of men and boys of color will probably always draw less political sympathy than maternal and infant health, despite the intimate link between the two–the report contends that public resources should me targeted to "Help communities link their strategies for improving health to complementary strategies to address jobs, housing, schools, and violence and crime." It’s too easy for policymakers to couch social problems as a terminal pathology of Black and Latino communities. Instead of portraying communities in crisis as inherently diseased, a healthier approach would deliver a more humane kind of intensive care. * California Endowment is a funder of the Applied Research Center Photo: Creative Commons/Adrian Miles