What does the life – and death – of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery mean for the health of Blacks in America?

A statement from the American Heart Association team:

In a 1966 interview, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.” He went on to explain his belief that America has failed to hear the plight of Black Americans.

More than fifty years later, our society may still not be listening. As an organization focused on the relentless pursuit of longer, healthier lives for all Americans in all communities, the American Heart Association denounces senseless acts of racial violence against individuals and senseless destruction in American cities that further threaten communities of color. The recent tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery leave us outraged and grieving, yet more determined than ever to do everything possible to eliminate the racial and class disparities that still exist.

The ongoing, systemic inequalities that affect the lived experience and health of African Americans have created an epidemic. Like any illness that spreads through a people, the impact is felt far beyond any single incident involving any single individual.

We think of the overwhelming impact COVID-19 has already had on our nation – more than 100,000 lives lost – and of the disproportionate impact felt by African Americans and others of color. The effects of COVID-19 on under-resourced communities are as much about pre-existing medical conditions as they are about pre-existing social conditions such as lack of access to quality health care, jobs, education and housing. The barriers to care in our nation perpetuate the health inequities this pandemic is highlighting. Systemic discrimination over decades has led to distrust in our health care system, this is in addition to the fact that Africans Americans are twice as likely to be uninsured. There is evidence that racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions.

Racial disparities in heart disease also exist. Recent research shows that heart disease risk actually differs among African Americans, blacks from the Caribbean and African immigrants: American blacks have a higher level of cardiovascular risk. What we hear from this science is that race itself is not a risk factor. Rather, deep societal ills are hurting the hearts of black men and women in our nation.

Whether it’s investing in social entrepreneurs to confront the challenge of food deserts on the south side of Chicago or by advocating in Washington and state capitols for public policy change to ensure all Americans have access to the health care they need, the American Heart Association has made the pursuit of health equity a priority.

The reality associated with the recent loss of black lives is hard. The truth it reveals is profound. That truth cannot continue to go unheard.

We are listening, hearing and redoubling our commitment to health disparities and societal inequities.

Our hearts are heavy. Our feet are willing and mobilized for change.