A dialogue about race we haven't had

April 15, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

It's been more than 140 years since the end of slavery in the United States and yet its legacy still adversely affects the health of African-Americans, according to author Richard Williams.

And, he suggests that white people are also affected in negative ways by what happened way back when, in part because society hasn't really had a frank dialogue about racial issues.

Williams, who will be in Hagerstown April 27 to speak at a banquet for the No Smoking Youth Club at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, knows what he's talking about.

With a doctorate in health education and administration, he has taught college-level courses in nutrition and health education.

When it comes to statistics on the black community's health problems, he reels them off in a way that suggests he's all too familiar with this bad news.


"We are about 15 percent of the population, but when it comes to alcohol and cigarettes, 30 to 40 percent are victims of those bad habits," he said.

"When it comes to lung cancer, it is highest among black males in Washington, D.C.," he said.

"Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the U.S., but it's 21 percent higher in the black male than in white males and it's 51 percent higher in black females than white females," he said.

"For strokes, the rate among blacks is twice that of whites and lung cancer is 41 percent higher," he said.

"These are all lifestyle things. Some of it is genetic, but a lot of it has to do with the slavery experience," he said.

"As a result of the slavery experience, we have some lifestyle mindsets that make us more susceptible" to bad health habits, he said.

"We have a great susceptibility to getting something to make us feel good," he said.

"It was a survival response to the slavery experience," he said, and now "we need to look at why we do the things we do."

Williams said the other problem with many blacks' lifestyle is their reluctance to seek medical attention for problems until there is no other alternative.

There is a perceived, subtle racism projected by medical institutions that those in charge might not even realize is there, he said.

"I can give you a personal example," he said. An upstanding citizen of Rochester, N.Y., who was an educator and who had never been convicted of a crime, he said that when he was severely injured in a car accident early one evening, he was brought into a hospital unconscious at about 6 p.m.

He said he then laid on a gurney for hours before someone looked into his wallet, found an ID and called his wife.

"When they found out who I was, then they wanted to apologize," he said.

"Who I was shouldn't have mattered. I should have been responded to just because I needed service," he said.

It is those feelings and expectations about the institutions that prevents black people from seeking the help they need, he said.

"I'm not saying that everyone is a racist. Most people don't believe that they are," he said.

Williams described a workshop he did on the subject with some police officers, after which he said one of them told him that he hadn't realized that he had such feelings.

Asked what he believed would help move race relations forward in America, Williams said that although the Emancipation Proclamation was passed in 1865 and much civil rights legislation in the 1960s, the nation still has not had a real dialogue on what still lingers from the days of slavery.

The great contradiction, Williams said, was that a nation founded on the idea that all men were created equal could legalize slavery. Those who supported slavery got around that by defining blacks as somehow less than human, he said.

Those feelings of racial superiority/inferiority still exist today, Williams said, even though many blacks and whites don't even realize it.

For things to improve, William said, there must be a national conversation between white and black folks. In that conversation, Williams said, white folks must accept the dignity of black folks and black folks must bring that quality to the table with them.

Neither should be looking down - or looking up - at the other, he said. Instead, it must be an eyeball-to-eyeball experience.

In the past I have written that while many people accepted the civil rights legislation as the law of the land, they did not accept it in the hearts. Williams argues that not bridging that divide hurts those of all races.

If that dialogue can happen, Williams said, "This would be a fantastic country," he said.

For more on Williams' philosophy, go to For information about the April 27 program, call Brothers United Who Dare To Care at 301-393-9290.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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