Tea Party Poll Exposes Widespread Disregard for Deadly Disparities

by Hugh Hamilton
April 19th, 2009

Most followers of the Tea Party movement believe that too much has been made of the problems facing African Americans, according to one recent CBS News/New York Times poll. Nearly three-quarters of Tea Partiers also claim that Blacks and whites enjoy equal opportunities for getting ahead in America. And while a majority of members concede that the Obama administration is even-handed in its treatment of Blacks and whites, one of every four Tea Partiers believes that the administration actually favors African Americans over their white counterparts.

Not surprisingly, Tea party supporters have been roundly excoriated for the patent absurdity of these purported beliefs. Some critics even suggest that such a distorted view of the African American experience is itself dispositive of an endemic racism within the movement. What else can you expect, they ask, of a self-described “grassroots movement” that is 89 percent white and just 1 percent Black?

But not all Tea Partiers are racists; some are merely victims of ignorance, compounded by the blatant disinformation propagated in much of our mainstream media. These are the hapless followers who rely on selected corporate media as their primary, principal and often only source of information and have not been well served by this dependency. They have been victimized not so much by the deliberate misreporting of facts as by the media’s failure to contextualize the information they report in a manner that infuses data with meaning and relevance. Consider, for example, the treatment accorded to one recent and widely reported study of global maternal mortality rates published this month in the Lancet medical journal.

According to the study, the number of women dying from pregnancy-related causes had dropped by some 35 percent globally over the past 30 years, but remained “surprisingly high” in the United States, Canada and Norway. In fact, not only had maternal mortality rates risen in the three countries but in the United States, the increase easily outpaced that of others in the group. Although this country spends more on its health-care industry than any other nation in the world, researchers reported, maternal deaths in the United States were double the rates in Britain, triple the rates in Australia and four times the rate in Italy.

Most corporate media dutifully reported the distressing news with all the requisite sobriety befitting the subject. But few bothered to contextualize that finding by examining more closely the actual incidence and distribution of maternal mortality rates within the United States. Had they done so, they would have been led to another recently published report – this one by Amnesty International -- which found that although the United States spends more on maternal health than any other type of hospital care, American women have a higher risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications than those in 40 other countries. And further, according to this study, African American women are nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women; in high-risk pregnancies, the disparities are even higher, with African American women five-and-a-half times more likely to die than their white counterparts.

The report, titled Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA, describes its findings as “not just a public health emergency but a human-rights crisis.”

Among other revelations:

  • Women of color account for 32 percent of all women in the United States but more than half of all uninsured women;
  • African American and Latina women are two-and-a-half times, and Native American women are three-and-a-half times more likely than white women to receive late or no prenatal care;
  • Caesarian sections in the United States are twice as high as recommended by the World Health Organization, and African American women have the highest C-section rate of any group; the risk of death following C-sections is more than three times higher than for vaginal births.

I spoke with Nan Strauss, a researcher with Amnesty International and co-author of the report who spent more than two years working on the study.

“It is unfortunately old news that we see these great health disparities in this country,” she told me, “but in the area of maternal mortality the disparities are even greater than in other very troubling areas like infant mortality and other infant outcomes like low birth weight and rates of pre-maturity.”

According to the report:

Discrimination profoundly affects a woman’s chances of being healthy in the first place. Women of color are less likely to go into pregnancy in good health because they are more likely to lack access to primary health-care services. Women of color are also less likely to have access to adequate maternal health-care services [and] more likely to experience discriminatory and inappropriate treatment and poorer quality care. And because women of color make up a disproportionate percentage of those who receive publicly funded care, they are most affected by barriers to accessing health-care services through these programs.”

This is not the kind of report likely to have made headlines in Tea Party circles. It does not complement the fictional narrative that too much is being made of the problems facing African Americans. Or that Blacks and whites in America enjoy equal access to opportunity. To the contrary, it calls renewed attention to the persistent and deadly disparities that confound our modern-day pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

We ignore them at our own peril.