Recently, it was brought to my attention that Grand Rapids as a city has, and has had for a while, one of the highest rates of black infant mortality in the country. 2009 data shows that our most recent black infant mortality rate hovers around 17.3%. To give you some context, this places us behind Mexico (16.2%) and well behind Syria (14.6%). Another interesting point of contrast is our white infant mortality rate, which is around 4.4%; safely below our national average of 5.9%. Research shows that outlying risk factors (education, socio-economic status, access etc) account for less than 10% in the variances in the rates of low birth rates between white and black babies. In Fact, white women who smoke during gestation, a known risk factor, still have significantly lower infant mortality rates than African-American women who do not.

Infant Mortality Rates in Grand Rapids

Infant Mortality Rates in Grand Rapids

So what then is causing this awful health disparity in a city lauded as a “mecca of health?” Medical professionals believe that ongoing exposure to large quantities of stress hormones is a leading cause in disparate pregnancy outcomes, as stress is known to be a complicating factor for pregnancy. The question then becomes: what large stressor is present for African-American women that doesn’t exist for white women?

Racism. The stress of racism is one of the leading causes for higher infant mortality rates among African American women. 

“Statistics show that women with very low birth weight babies were three times as likely to have experienced interpersonal racism than women with children of normal birth rates. Foreign-born black women see their rates of infant mortality rise to the same level as U.S.-born black women within a generation.” – Megan Carpentier, RH Reality Check.

A report last year scored the U.S. 100 largest metropolitan areas according to racial equity for African Americans. All of the 15 least equitable cities (Grand Rapids is 13th) have black infant mortality rates that are significantly higher than the nation’s average.

As somebody who works in the social service industry, we should start thinking about what kind of societal changes need to take place in order to make our city safer one for all our women. For more information on how to be a part of changing the current disparate landscape, contact the Grand Rapids African Health Institute and talk to Stephanie. She’ll point you in the right direction.