The Most Shocking and Inhuman Inequality: Thinking Structurally about Poverty, Racism, and Health Inequities

By Roberts, Dorothy E. | The University of Memphis Law Review, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Most Shocking and Inhuman Inequality: Thinking Structurally about Poverty, Racism, and Health Inequities


Roberts, Dorothy E., The University of Memphis Law Review


I.Introduction

In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. singled out one form of inequality as especially egregious: "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman."1 A year later, Dr. King launched the Poor People's Campaign, which connected the ongoing movement for black people's civil rights to a new call for the radical redistribution of political and economic power.2 He identified racism, poverty, and militarism as related evils that systematically fueled an unjust social order and that had to be fought together to build a better world.3 By highlighting injustice in health, Dr. King recognized the relationship between gaps in health among populations living in the United States and the institutionalized racism and economic inequality that were at the heart of a widening civil rights struggle.4

Today, health disparities continue to be the focus of scientific and policy debates. Biological scientists are investigating whether gaps in health between social groups result from differing social environments or from differing genetic predispositions.5 Congress is deciding whether to treat health care as a human right or to cut funding for medical services for the poor and allow discriminatory restrictions on their receipt of benefits.6 Dr. King indicated these questions concerning health, along with debates about inequality in criminal justice, education, employment, and voting, were critical to his dream of a Beloved Community-a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one's fellow human beings.7 According to Dr. King, affirming our equal humanity required guarantees of certain basic human rights, including adequate income, food, shelter, and health care.8

This Essay interrogates Dr. King's attention to health inequality to illuminate three aspects of the structural relationship between poverty, racism, and health, with a focus on Black Americans. First, health disparities are structured according to political hierarchies in our society. Health status tracks social status. Striking gaps exist in health between black people and white people, poor people and wealthy people, and other socially disadvantaged and socially privileged people in the United States.9 Health inequality is especially shocking and inhuman because these gaps are so large and cause so much suffering to the most marginalized people in our society. Second, health inequities are structured by the intersection of poverty and racism. Because institutionalized racism has excluded Black Americans from equal participation in the national economy, concentrating poverty and discrimination in their communities, their higher rates of mortality and morbidity are caused by racism and poverty combined. Finally, biological explanations for racial gaps in health that obscure the role of poverty and racism help to more broadly support structural injustice. This Essay concludes by recommending strategies to dismantle structural impediments to good health as well as to reject biological explanations for social inequality.

II. Social Inequality and the Structure of Health Disparities

Health disparities are not just a biological reality; they are a form of social inequality because they are structured according to unjust power arrangements. Social stratification drives group disparities in health, so health status reflects social status.10 Public health advocates use the term "health inequities" to describe these differences in health because they result from the systemic, unjust, and avoidable distribution of social, economic, political, and environmental resources needed for health and well-being.11 Numerous studies have established that the best predictor of health is an individual's position in the social order.12 Poor health is a function of occupying a disadvantaged position in our society, while having better health is a benefit of being socially privileged.13 The classic Whitehall Study of British Civil Servants, lasting for more than two decades, compared heart disease and mortality in employees at four civil service levels: administrators, professional and executive employees, clerical staff, and menial workers. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Most Shocking and Inhuman Inequality: Thinking Structurally about Poverty, Racism, and Health Inequities
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.