LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Black babies are two times as likely to die before they reach their first birthday than white babies. That's just one of the startling facts in Priska Neely's reporting on a gap in birth outcomes that has persisted for years. Poverty, education, health care access are all factors. But now research is focused on the role of racism in these statistics. It's simply a chronically stressful condition to be a black woman in the United States. Priska Neely is the senior early childhood reporter at our member station KPCC, which is where she's joining us from today. Hey, Priska.
PRISKA NEELY, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu. Great to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you lay out the scope of the problem?
NEELY: Prematurity is the leading cause here. So most of the babies are born too early and too small. This is not a new issue, and it goes back decades. I did some digging in the library and actually found a transcript of a congressional hearing from 1984 that was called Failure To Close The Black-White Gap. But, you know, here we are 30 years later, and the gap is still there. Things have improved. Fewer babies die in general now as we've gotten better at health care and keeping preemies alive, but that gap is still there.
So over the decades, society has kind of shifted from looking at this as an individual issue, from, like, blaming black moms for their behavior to then questioning whether genetics are part of it. That doesn't explain it. There have been studies done looking at the birth outcomes for African immigrants who come to the U.S., have babies. And their outcomes are more similar to white women. And now the field is really focused on looking at what's called the social determinants of health and looking at how structural and institutional racism contribute to this issue.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. When you talk about structural and institutional racism, what do you mean?
NEELY: So a few things here. One is looking at how different communities have actually been limited to accessing certain things like health care. But there's - also, when you look at individual racism, there's something that's called weathering. That's a term that was coined by a researcher back in the 1970s - looking at how black women's bodies respond to stress over time. And the social experience of being a black woman in the United States can put you at a heightened state. That's a chronic state of stress, and that can have health implications. And that's one of the things that researchers are really focused on in looking at the cause of preterm births.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you were drawn to this reporting partially because it's an issue that affected your family directly.
NEELY: Yeah. That's right. I didn't know about this until a year ago when I started covering early childhood. I was at a prenatal health conference, and I heard that statistic for the first time. And I heard that it was about preemies, about premature babies. And I'm sitting there, as a black woman, realizing that my sisters are part of this statistic.
One of my sisters, Nicole - she lost two babies about 20 years ago, who were born very premature. And my other sister LaKisha had my nephew about two months early. And so as part of this reporting that I was doing, you know, I had to talk to them about it. I interviewed them about it. And that - as I was talking to my sister LaKisha, my nephew Isaiah - who was born premature but is now 11 - and he's amazing - he wandered into the room, and he told me what he knows about being a preemie.
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ISAIAH: I remember that I was - I don't know. I could fit in my dad's or my mom's hand.
NEELY: Do you actually remember that?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).
ISAIAH: But I know that.
NEELY: You remember hearing that?
NEELY: Yeah, you know? He's 11 now, and he's doing great. And he's, you know, developing great. But that's not the case for a lot of other babies who are born premature and have, you know, lifelong developmental issues.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you've identified the problem in your reporting, but you also focused on people who are working to change the statistic. First of all, in LA, that statistic is even bleaker. Black babies are more than three times more likely than white babies to die in the first year of life. But there's a new head of the Department of Public Health there named Barbara Ferrer, who's trying to make a difference. Tell us about her.
NEELY: Yeah. So Barbara Ferrer came to LA County about a year ago now. And closing this gap is one of her top priorities. The reason that she thinks it's been so persistent is because we haven't been willing to talk about racism over the years.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: For a public official to name racism as the culprit, it's a fairly big step.
NEELY: It is a big step, and it's really not happening everywhere. I think more so in California, that conversation is there, and people are calling that out. I also traveled to Oakland, and there's a lot of conversations about social determinants of health, not only in this issue but across the board.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Priska Neely is senior reporter at KPCC, where she covers early childhood. Thank you so much.
NEELY: Thank you.
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