Racial Equality: A Means to Good Health


Summary of Speech By Susan Moscou


"If I understand the goals of Liberation Medicine and DGH,

we must carry with us the collective memories of Sojourner

Truth and Stephen Biko. Confront injustice, fight for racial

equality and raise the consciousness of the oppressed and,

if we can, of the oppressor."

I am a family nurse practitioner. I provide health care services to HIV/AIDS adults. I spend my time in the Bronx. Lanny Smith, colleague and friend, asked me to speak to you this morning about several topics near and dear to me: revolution, racial equality and health care. I feel truly honored to be asked to speak to you.


Sojourner Truth, was born (1798) into slavery in upstate New York, obtained her freedom (1827) and moved to NYC. Sojourner became a traveling preacher and developed a reputation as a powerful speaker. A turning point in her life occurred when she visited the Northampton Association in Massachusetts.


The members of this association included many leading Abolitionists and women's rights activists. Sojourner Truth discussed issues confronting Blacks and women. Sojourner refused to tolerate the indignities of Jim Crow segregation on street cars and had the Jim Crow car removed from the Washington, DC, system. She brought a local street to a standstill when a driver refused her passage and with the support of the crowd, forced the driver to take her.


Throughout her life, Sojourner challenged injustice whenever she saw it. She was an Abolitionist, women's rights activist, and a preacher—the kind I can live with.


For those of us involved in social justice struggles, we all have a little bit of Sojourner Truth in us—we bring the struggle to the people.


She was the first person to link the oppression of black slaves with the oppression of women. Oppression, a powerful tool of an elite, creates unhealthy environments for all who experience oppression.


In the US, slavery ended in 1865, but the social vestiges remain. Women, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and other minorities still do not enjoy the wealth of this country or participate as equals. Most of my work and volunteer career has been in communities that lack adequate health services, livable housing stock, and good educational systems—the very social services necessary to grow up healthy in our society.


Call me naive, but I am still shocked that we continue to see these conditions and even more amazed that these communities are still blamed for their problems.

In America, the poverty rate for Whites is 11%; Blacks 32%; Hispanics 31%; Other 20%. The median family income for Whites is $36,067; Blacks $23,000; Hispanics $22,033; Other $27,000. Currently, we are a country of about 269 million people. However, 43 million of us are uninsured—that translates to 1 in 6 Americans. 1 in 3 Americans ages 18-64 are uninsured or have gaps in coverage. 26.2 million immigrants reside in the US, 9 million of them are uninsured. 1 million immigrant children are uninsured. (Kaiser Foundation statistics 1997-1999.)


What does it mean to lack health insurance? As practicing clinicians, we see the impact on a daily basis: treatable disease (asthma, diabetes, hypertension) get worse; children lack the requisite immunizations; patients delay care and utilize emergency rooms; patient care is fragmented; our precious prescriptions don't get filled; oral health gets ignored.


Prior to my current job, I worked with homeless families—baby bottle tooth decay was rampant. So were mental health problems (depression, anxiety, sadness) and lack of prenatal care (pregnant women are automatically eligible for Medicaid—they just don't know it).


So, knowing what we know—where do we, and I do mean the collective we, fit into this scenario. What is our role? We are the health care professionals who work in the communities ignored by many in our society. We are not just the safety net providers—we are the providers of health care services to poor and remote communities. We are bringing a brand of health care services that our patients deserve, not just need. We have a unique vantage point—we understand and know oppression, we understand and know racial inequality, we understand and know how to fight for and struggle for social justice issues: A living wage (take heart, cities are passing laws); Access to quality health care (take heart, this struggle continues—think Physicians for a National Health Plan); Death penalty moratoriums (think Illinois and other states are following); Ending sweat shops and child labor (think unions and their need to take on international corporations).


We understand these realities. We are involved in many of these struggles and ones I have not mentioned. We know that we must advocate for and teach others to advocate for the very things that keep us strong, healthy and committed to ensuring equality for everyone.


Think of Stephen Biko, the South African political leader in the late 1960s. He entered the University of Natal in 1966 to study medicine. In 1972, he was expelled for his political activities—he was against the white-minority government of South Africa and its restrictive racial policies. Biko sought to liberate the minds of Africans. He argued that liberation grows out of "the realization by Blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." He was the founder of the black consciousness movement.


Stephen Biko was beaten to death in August 1977 by the police while in custody. Stephen Biko lives on in the consciousness of those who fight oppression.


If I understand the goals of Liberation Medicine and DGH, we must carry with us the collective memories of Sojourner Truth and Stephen Biko. Confront injustice, fight for racial equality and raise the consciousness of the oppressed and, if we can, of the oppressor.