The Totally Unacceptable Reason Black Moms Are More Likely to Suffer the Death of a Baby


Scientists have known for decades that African-American women face high rates of infant mortality. The phenomenon, while certainly heartbreaking, has gone largely unexplained for just as long. Now, experts think they know the reason why so many black moms lose their babies. Unfortunately, the cause may ultimately be racism -- an answer that is devastating but not necessarily surprising.


In 2015, the US Centers for Disease Control reported that in the United States, about 5.9 infant deaths occur for every 1,000 live births. Within that statistic, it was found that 4.9 white infants out of every 1,000 live births die in their first year of life. But the number for black babies was a startling 11.3 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births.

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"Black babies in the United States die at just over two times the rate of white babies in the first year of their life," Arthur James, an ob-gyn at Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University in Columbus, told NPR in a recent article that sought the reason behind this shocking discrepancy.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control

James told NPR that the majority of black infants who die within their first year are also born prematurely. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, babies born to black mothers are 50 percent more likely to be premature than babies born to white mothers. At 65 years old, James said that he has encountered countless black babies who lost their lives. "You ask yourself the question: What is it about being black that places us at an increased risk for that kind of experience?"

NPR reports that after decades of tragedy and research, many experts believe that the racial discrimination faced by African-American women may drastically decrease their chances of carrying babies to full term. Put simply, the stress of constant discrimination is taking a toll not only on the black women who face this discrimination, but also on their children and unborn babies.

Neonatologist Richard David from the University of Illinois of Chicago told NPR he has been studying black infant mortality for decades. David claims that in the beginning, scientists thought the high rates were directly linked to low socioeconomic status and lack of education. It wasn't until later, while working with colleague James Collins, that they realized these factors didn't play as large a role as previously thought. A 2011 study conducted by David and Collins at Northwestern University Medical School proved that college-educated, middle-class African-American women were still at a higher risk of delivering premature babies who had a lower risk of survival than their white counterparts. 

This doesn't mean that class doesn't play a role at all, though. David says that both black and white teenage mothers who grew up in poor neighborhoods have a higher risk of giving birth to premature babies. "They both have something like a 13 percent chance of having a low birth weight baby," he told NPR.

But for slightly older white women in higher-income neighborhoods, those odds become a lot better, and the change doesn't carry over to black women in similar demographics. "Among white women, the risk of low birth weight drops dramatically to about half of that, whereas for African-American women, it only drops a little bit," David explained.

Scientists have determined that these issues aren't necessarily socioeconomic, nor are they genetic. What they found is something uniquely specific to growing up and living as a black woman in the United States: No matter their education level or their salaries, just about every black woman in the country faces a disturbing amount of racism in her everyday life.

Multiple studies have shown that a high amount African-American women who self-reported as having experienced racial discrimination went on to give birth prematurely. "It turned out that as a predictor of a very low birth weight outcome, these racial discrimination questions were more powerful than asking a woman whether or not she smoked cigarettes," claimed David. 

The constant racial discrimination black women face results in never-ending stress -- stress that experts believe results in premature births and infant deaths. "We think that higher levels of stress hormones increase the incidence of pre-term labor," Arthur James told NPR. 

There is also much to be said about the ways racist medical biases harm pregnant black women. The US Centers for Disease Control reports that black mothers in the United States are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth related causes than white women. This systemic issue seems to stem from things like lack of access to quality medical care, as well as many black women feeling that medical professionals don't take their pain or medical concerns seriously.

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These startling statistics and scientific revelations simply confirm what black women have known for years: Racism is more than just words; it has very real, very dangerous ramifications on the lives of black men, women, and children. No matter our age, the level of education we have, our marriage status, or our sexuality, a terrifying combination of racism inside and outside of the medical field places black women and our children at a disadvantage. It shouldn't be too much for anyone to say that these realizations are heartbreaking.

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