Commentary: Are Race-Based Health Recommendations Harmful?

Do race-based health recommendations hurt African-Americans? A researcher at Michigan State believes that they reinforce harmful notions about race.

Every time I read a health story about African-Americans, it’s another reminder of what ailments we are more likely to either develop, contract or die from: diabetes, HIV, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, breast cancer and prostate cancer, to name a few.


And with some of those connections of race to health, especially those that are believed to be genetic, comes certain health and preventative recommendations handed down by a health organization.


But, in a new article published in Preventative Medicine, researcher and Michigan State professor Sean Valles wrote that these health recommendations are somewhat problematic because they promote prejudice and overlook low-risk groups within ethnicities.


On Central, a public radio station in Southern California, reported:


In his paper, Valles agrees that some racial groups are, on average, more prone to certain diseases and conditions than other ethnic groups. But, he says, within each ethnic group are what he calls "islands" of lower risk that shouldn't go unacknowledged.


He gave a couple of examples. The government recommends that black people eat less salt than other ethnic groups, due to their predisposition for high blood pressure. But Valles notes that foreign-born black people tend to have different lifestyles, and as such have substantially lower rates of heart disease, for which high blood pressure is a risk factor.


Valles says recommendations like these can play up harmful stereotypes about people of color because it assumes that all people in one group are exactly the same, according to a press release.


“Of all the levels of specificity to choose, we’ve been fixated on the one that has the most negative repercussions,” he said. “There are very serious problems that come with giving the misleading impression that races have some sort of very deep and intrinsic biological meaning.”


Now, I completely understand his fears of reinforcing racial stereotypes, especially when you add health and medicine into the mix. These types of conversations, especially for Black folks, invoke steep feelings of our tumultuous past with the medical industry. For too long, scientists, researchers and doctors used our DNA and “differences” to deem us as inferior in order to justify abominable treatment such as slavery, the Tuskegee experiments (a 40-year study that left 399 Black men untreated for syphilis) and forced sterilizations of Black women in the ‘50 and ‘60s, to name a few.


And growing data over the years shows that racism and bias are still present in the doctor’s office and patients are not happy. Just this year, researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that doctors tend to talk over patients of color and that Black patients don’t really trust the information they’re given from their primary health care physicians.


Obviously, this is a serious problem, but I’m really not convinced that Valles’ argument and the examples he uses are all that strong in conveying the danger of race-based health recommendations. Yes, I think doctors need to understand that not all Black folks are the same — we come from Africa, the Caribbean, all over — but being told to eat less salt isn’t getting us riled up and ready to call the NAACP.


If we want to address racial bias, let’s start with the doctors treat Black patients poorly and don’t listen to them.


And I agree that it’s important that we recognize that not everything can be explained away by genetics — socioeconomics and access to care play a huge factor in health disparities. But too many times, we are unwilling to recognize and discuss genetic racial differences because of suspicions and fear of being politically incorrect. And unfortunately, the folks who need this research the most — African-Americans — pay the biggest price.


In the end, while I appreciate Valles’ attempt, race-based health recommendations aimed at improving our health are really the least of our worries.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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 (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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