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  • State of Black New York: The Racial Divide in Health Care and Education

    By Lynda Lopez, Marla Diamond and Steve Burns, WCBS Newsradio 880

    NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — Over the next three weeks, WCBS Newsradio 880 is going to be spending time digging into a comprehensive report released by the New York Urban League titled, “The State of Black New York.”

    We at WCBS 880 and Entercom New York are pleased to partner with the New York Urban League to shine the spotlight on issues of inequity in our community in important areas like health care, education, the digital divide, social justice, the economy, and civic engagement.

    Arva Rice, President and CEO of the New York Urban League, said the organization utilized data from Robin Hood & Columbia University’s Poverty and Early Childhood Poverty Trackers and also worked with United Way and the New York Women’s Foundation to provide statistical information on how African Americans are faring in comparison to their White counterparts.

    “It’s really important for us to release the ‘State of Black New York’ report this year,” Rice said. “Our national office releases the ‘State of Black America’ on an annual basis and we had not released the ‘State of Black New York’ in over 10 years. In conjunction with our centennial, we wanted to be able to have a clearer baseline of how African Americans were doing in several key areas.”

    The report not only lays out issue and statistics, it also includes actionable steps to facilitate change.

    “It is important for us to shine the light on inequality, but to also provide some concrete strategies and policy suggestions on how to close those disparities and close those gaps,” Rice said.

    As we tackle the report, this week reporters Marla Diamond and Steve Burns focus on health and education.


    According to the New York Urban League report, one in four Black adults in New York City faced a health problem in 2018.

    Today, they are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than White people — making up 28% of deaths from the virus despite being only 22% of the city’s population.

    Elisabeth Benjamin, Vice President of Health Initiatives at the Community Service Society, said this is the result of the state’s 30-year pro-market agenda.

    “This is what structural racism looks like in the health care field. So in the 90s, we eliminated any semblance of regional health planning and centralized it up in Albany with a committee controlled by private and voluntary hospitals,” Benjamin said. “Although charities in name often do not act in very charitable ways toward their patients.”

    Reimbursement rates were deregulated, allowing the most powerful hospital systems to get stronger, pushing out smaller community hospitals serving poor Black neighborhoods. The health care burden was pushed onto the city’s hospital system, which strained under the weight of the pandemic.

    “So that’s why you see the New York Times and many, many articles about what was going on in Elmhurst, which was sort of the last hospital standing in Queens, versus what was going on in sort of well-heeled Manhattan hospitals,” Benjamin said.

    The COVID crisis has revealed layers of inequities that The Rev. Calvin Butts sees firsthand at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

    “The virus becomes a problem because cancer is still a problem; the virus becomes a problem because heart disease is still a problem; the virus becomes a problem because diabetes is still a problem. So this really digs deep into an underlying reality that we have not been getting adequate health care in our communities,” Butts said. “And we could go even deeper — the lack of doctors, the lack of nurses, the lack of information.”

    The church was the first house of worship in the state to offer the COVID-19 vaccine.

    “And we have found that by having the site for vaccinations in the community, in the church, we had more people coming to receive the vaccine who feel more comfortable, who are dealing, they believe, with trusted voices from the community — their pastor, their church, their officers at the church — and this has been extremely successful. We vaccinated now over 1,000 people,” Butt said.

    Vaccines are providing some peace of mind. It’s been hard to come by in a community dealing with the twin pandemics of the virus and racial injustice, said Dr. Jamila Codrington, past president of the New York Association of Black Psychologists.

    “I’ve had to make more referrals to other clinicians, outpatient mental health facilities, substance abuse clinics, shelters. It’s not just mental health, but domestic violence rates are increasing, alcoholism and drug use is increasing, and these are all comorbidities with mental health,” she said.

    A 2017 New York Department of Health report found African Americans are more likely to experience serious mental health problems, but less likely to receive follow up visits after hospitalizations.

    Dr. Codrington said that is changing with culturally responsive messaging.

    “We have therapy for Black girls, therapy for Black men, and they are making a difference,” she said.

    Yet, finding a Black therapist can be difficult, especially for low income New Yorkers.

    The American Psychological Association found Black psychologists make up just 4% of all psychologists nationwide.

    The New York Urban League’s report was conceived before the COVID-19 pandemic and, as a result, had to be updated because some of the racial disparities were only compounded in the last year.

    “The report was designed and ready to go out for distribution and COVID hit our communities and we had this inkling that COVID might impact us more than other places,” Rice said. “As you look at the issues having to do with underlying health issues that face the African American community, we found that COVID started to reach our communities at a higher level.”

    So can it be fixed quickly?

    “Quickly probably not, but it can be addressed,” Rice said. “There are specific strategies that we need to put in place in order to close that divide that include education, that include access to quality health care, that include dispelling some of the myths, and being able to have access to and encourage healthy eating.”


    Another area where the gap is wide is in education.

    According to the New York Urban League report, Black students are two times more likely to fall below proficiency levels in English than their White peers, and three times more likely in math.

    As a result, graduation rates and completion rates in high schools for Blacks are much lower than Whites.

    The report cites many possibly reasons.

    Our Steve Burns takes a look at a few of them.

    Jamaal Bowman, U.S. representative for New York’s 16th congressional district, said before he became a middle school principal, he often found himself on the other side of the principal’s desk.

    “I was a hot mess in school,” said Bowman. “I used to get in a lot of trouble, I was acting out. I was in the dean’s office a lot. I was handcuffed as a student in middle school.”

    In high school, he said he was suspended multiple times — punishments for actions that Bowman now realizes were a product of his environment.

    “My father wasn’t around, constantly lying to me telling me he was coming to see me and not showing up. I was angry and frustrated about that, but I didn’t know how to communicate any of that, so that manifested with me acting out at school,” Bowman said.

    The congressman says it’s that holistic approach, the understanding that kids come to school with some baggage that should transform our idea of discipline.

    “Too often it’s a child acts up, the child is discarded,” Bowman said.

    While suspensions have fallen dramatically during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s time in office they are still disproportionately being issued to students of color and students with disabilities, often leading to worse academic performance, more dropouts, and more of the behavior that was being discouraged in the first place.

    “White children are looked at as being rambunctious or mischievous, Black and Latino children tend to be looked at as criminal and harmful and dangerous,” Bowman said. “Our kids they’re coming to school with so much on their plates.”

    Moving to a restorative approach on discipline would be a big step forward.

    “We need to have more policies around ensuring our schools have more social workers and counselors and child psychologists,” Bowman said.

    For him, the transformation came when he was able to move to New Jersey to a new environment and center himself through football.

    “And ultimately I became an All State football player and ended up playing football in college, so I was lucky. There are millions of kids who don’t get that opportunity,” Bowman said.

    From elementary school tests scores, to SAT scores, to graduation rates, the racial disparities in New York City schools are clear.

    “So many patterns become entrenched very early on in terms of the life trajectory of our students,” said Paula White, the executive director of Educators for Excellence.

    She said universal pre-K for the city was a big step forward, but the momentum shouldn’t be lost.

    “Just making sure that the school system is good enough that when they enter that it won’t flatten the gains,” White said.

    One way to do that is through AP, or advanced placement courses, but White said there are hurdles for students of color.

    “In some districts there is a recommendation process and what that actually does is it serves as a gatekeeper to who can actually take the classes,” White said.

    Teacher biases can come into play, as can language barriers.
    Despite more Black students enrolling in AP courses in recent years, the New York Urban League says the percentage who pass their AP tests has gone down.

    White said enrollment on its own is a step in the right direction.

    “Exposure to rigor bodes well for later success and persistence in college,” White said. But removing those hurdles to enrollment would help even more. “If there’s just sort of universal access, if you elect to take the course then that just gets rid of one area.”

    COVID has had a damaging impact on all communities when it comes to education, but especially those of color, where resources were already thin. So the question now is how do we recover from these losses?

    Rice believes recovery will take years.

    “When schools closed and moved to digital learning there were some young people who never turned on their computers,” Rice said. “They did not turn on their computers in some cases because individuals did not have them; they did not turn on their computers because there was not the one on one relationship in order to keep that engagement going with individual students; there were families that had four and five children and only access to one laptop. As a result, we are going to be having students who have lost months and months of education, months and months of support, in addition to things like proms and graduation parties and helping support filling out their college applications. The impact of that is going to be felt for years so we’re going to need to develop and create additional supportive services for young people.”

    Rice is hopeful for the future and encourages people to do even more work in school buildings and to volunteer at churches, mosques and synagogues to become mentors and reading coaches.

    “I have to implore people to be take this as their opportunity to be the change that they have been wanting to see in the world, but if we don’t do anything, if we don’t act in a different way, if we don’t respond to this unbelievable moment in time, then yes, we will lose a generation,” Rice said.

    In the weeks ahead, we will be tackling the other issues in the report in greater detail such as civic engagement, the digital divide, the economy and social justice.

    Neil A. Carousso produces The 880 Weekly Rewind with Lynda Lopez Friday nights at 7 PM on WCBS Newsradio 880. Listen to this week’s full show on the media player above.

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