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Infant Mortality: Black Communities’ Hidden Tragedy That is Getting Worse

There are many issues that fall below the radar when contrasted against our interest in the problem behavior of a Chris Brown, the NFL lock out or even the death of  Elizabeth Taylor, and one of them that confronts us daily is the state of our health.

We are well versed in how the overt issues of violence and HIV, for example, impact our community. They primarily involve choices. But some health issues, such as infant mortality, are rarely discussed. Since statistics on infant mortality started to be maintained in 1960 when the U.S. was ranked 12th, that ranking has been falling steadily, from 23rd in 1990 to 27th in 2000. In total, infant mortality among African Americans in 2000 occurred at a rate of 14.1 deaths per 1,000 live births, more than twice the national average of 6.9 deaths per 1,000 live births. According to current CDC data, the infant mortality rate for non-Hispanic black women was 2.4 times the rate for non-Hispanic white women.

In Louisiana, fewer African American infants live to see their first birthdays than just about anywhere in the U.S. Among the 64 parishes, Terrebonne has the second-highest death rate for black infants, with a rate more than four times higher than for white babies, according to figures released by the Louisiana State Health Department. Based on the latest data, in Tennessee, infant mortality for black infants are 17.4 per 1,000 live births, 2.7 times the rate for white babies (6.4 per 1,000 live births). In Detroit, 17 out of every 1,000 black infants die before they are 1 year old, according to state health statistics for 1998-2002. This is almost three times the rate for white infants born in Detroit. In Massachusetts, black babies die at a rate three times higher than white babies, according to a 2005 report from the state’s department of public health.

This problem is not just observed in poor black women and families, given that high poverty levels and extremely high rates of infection in pregnancy are key factors in this disparity. Middle class African American women who have steady jobs also suffer from this problem, with professional middle class black women having a two to three times higher risk of having babies with low birth weight (the major cause of early infant deaths) when compared to white women.

What is consistent is the legacy of slavery and historical oppression, meaning that the exorbitant high rate of black infant mortality is not caused by personal or individual irresponsibility, but rather is a function of and correlated with the historical oppression impacting African Americans as a whole.  –torrance stephens, ph.d. 

Torrance Stephens authors the blog Find him on