Racism Is Killing Black Men, Even in Health Care
The recent death of Bernard Tyson, Kaiser Permanente’s CEO, reminds us of the harm that socioeconomic status can’t offset
Earlier this month, Bernard Tyson, the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, died unexpectedly in his sleep. He was 60. Tyson was a singular figure, and the outpouring of stories that trailed the announcement of his death captured the picture of a charismatic, inspiring leader.
Tyson may have been one-of-a-kind, but his death was characteristic of so many other Black men in America: It was too damn early. Black men in the U.S. have a shorter life expectancy than white men by almost five years, a survival gap mostly attributable to differences in cardiovascular mortality. That simple difference encapsulates a whole universe of “less.” There is less recognition of cardiovascular disease risk factors, less evidence-based treatment overall and less timely treatment when it is received, and less of a chance of surviving after surgeries like coronary artery bypass. There is also less research involving Black participants, less funding of Black researchers, less representation of Black physicians and nurses within care teams, and thus, less racially concordant care.
For years, researchers sought to explain away such differences in terms that sounded a lot like blame: It is poverty and all the problems that come with it, like poor nutrition or an increased risk for violence. Deaths like Tyson’s challenge this idea, and run in parallel with increasing data on how socioeconomic status does not protect against the direct, toxic impact of racism itself. In the wake of Rep. Elijah Cummings’ death last month — also prematurely, at the age of 68 — author Ibram Kendi phrased it bluntly in the Atlantic: “Racism is killing black men.” Kendi cited research that experiences of racial discrimination and internalized racism are associated with DNA-level signs of accelerated aging.
Imagine the many insults one must have to endure on the path to becoming Kaiser Permanente’s first Black CEO. It’s bearing the weight of “first” and “only” at every step along the way; it’s facing both the subtle and overt racism that never turns off, no matter how powerful the role one inhabits. And the pressure only…