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Is Being Black Bad for Your Health?

An event hosted by Drew Theological School’s Religion and Global Health Forum.

January 2021 – Drew University’s Religion and Global Health Forum, a pilot initiative to bridge the diverse worlds of faith and medicine to improve individual and public health outcomes globally, hosted “Is Being Black Bad for Your Health?” The virtual event, which took place last month, featured keynote speakers Julius Garvey, M.D., founder and medical director of Garvey Vascular Specialists, and Rebkha Atnafou, MPH, founder and CEO, RnD Associates.

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Julius Garvey, M.D.

Garvey is the son of the late Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, and an early proponent for civil rights and Pan-Africanism. 

The event was moderated by Dr. Kenneth Ngwa, director of the Religion and Global Health Forum at Drew, and Dr. Wil Ngwa, director of the Global Health Catalyst, Brigham Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School.

Garvey and Atnafou separately reviewed the historical injustices and inequities of African Americans. “We cannot talk about the current state of Black Americans without talking about the medical apartheid in this country history and how Black and Brown people have been and continue to be subject to various injustices,” said Atnafou.

“A culture of slavery has persisted in America,” said Garvey, noting that slavery was not truly abolished until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. “Central to this is the sense that whites are superior to Blacks and it is their duty to control and suppress Black freedom.”

“You must be whole and holy to be perfectly healthy.”

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Rebkha Atnafou, MPH

Today, there is a staggering disparity in the distribution of wealth in the U.S., defined as assets minus debt. “The average wealth of a white family is seven times the wealth of a Black family,” said Garvey. The disparity further extends to the health and wellness of Black Americans. “The epidemic of chronic disease is caused by lack of exercise, poor diet, tobacco usage, excessive alcoholic consumption and stress,” said Garvey, adding that integrating diet and lifestyle changes can help the body, mind and spirit. “The food you consume can heal you faster and better without side effects than the most expensive prescription drugs and surgical procedures. When diet and lifestyle are adjusted, we are in balance with our environment and the body has a remarkable capacity to heal itself. You must be whole and holy to be perfectly healthy.”

Atnafou echoed this sentiment, stating that Black people in the U.S. face gross inequities and access to quality care and resources versus other demographics. “Thinking about health is not a Black and white issue, it is a green issue. It is a money issue—the inequalities and inequities related to how we invest in the health of our population.”

The access to resources is not comparable in white and Black neighborhoods. Atnafou explains this is due to “forced standards of living” based upon society and stigma. The social determinates of health are based upon the conditions in the environment in which people are born, live, learn, work, play and worship.

“Health is beyond the doctors office,” said Atnafou, suggesting Americans take action to educate and inspire change.

Check out the full conversation!

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