Beverly H. Wright
Since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Black Americans have made great strides. However, the health status of Black Americans has shown a persistent and distressing disparity in important health indicators when compared to those of their white counterparts. In 1983, the life expectancy of whites reached a new high of 75.2 years, while black life expectancy reached only 69.6 years. This difference in the life expectancy of whites and blacks represents a gap of 5.6 years. The present life expectancy of Black Americans was reached by White Americans in the early 1950s, thus representing a lag of about thirty years.( 1)
In 1980, there were 26.5 million blacks in the United States. This represents an increase of approximately 17 percent over 1970 census figures. Approximately 15 percent of the total U.S. population in the 15 or under age category are black. However, by the time they are 64, the relative proportion of the black U.S. population decreases to 8 percent. ( 2).
Although many factors are presumed to influence black health status and life expectancy in America today, environmental and occupational exposures are increasingly considered sources of disease and illness.( 3) A major demand of the civil rights struggle for Black Americans was equal access to the work place. Black unemployment was seen as a major obstacle to economic stability and progress within the community. Consequently, many black civil tights, business, and political leaders directed their energies toward bringing jobs to their constituents. Ironically, the pursuit of greater job opportunities for blacks overshadowed concern for the safety and health risk related to increased employment within certain job categories. In some instances, a right to have a job also came to mean a right to die due to job exposures.
There are approximately 100 million workers in America. Each year 100,000 die from occupational diseases while nearly 400,000 new cases each year are reported.( 4) Approximately 9 million persons each year suffer from severe work-related injuries.( 5)
Blacks, however, have a 37 percent greater chance of suffering an occupational injury or illness and a 20 percent greater chance of dying from an occupational disease or injury than do white workers. Black workers are also twice as likely to be permanently disabled by work-related diseases than their white counterparts. Approximately one and one- half million or fifteen percent of the black work force are permanently