All this week, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I have been reminded of the shoulders I stand on—the civil rights leaders who sat in protest, endured water hosings, recovered from dog bites, and went to prison for me and my children, and my children’s children, to have the most basic liberties.
Fifty years later, if we are to fully realize Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream we have to be healthy and thriving. Our children need to be healthy and thrive. For, if we have not secured these basic rights for the youngest and most vulnerable among us, then we are far from fully realizing the Dream. Yet, equal access to a health and well-being is still a basic right that we continue to strive for. In far too many black and brown communities, this struggle begins at birth. Mothers lack access to the support and resources needed to give their infant the best first food possible—breast milk—a key preventative medicine for a healthier childhood and adult life.
What’s worse, these inequities in access cut deeply over racial lines. For over 40 years there has been a gaping racial disparity in breastfeeding rates. The most recent CDC data show that 75% of white women have ever breastfed versus 58.9% of black women.
There’s a price we pay for fewer breastfed babies in our community, and there’s nothing Dream-like about it. Black babies are dying at twice the rate (in some place, nearly triple) the rate of white babies. The high infant mortality rate among black infants is mostly to their being disproportionately born too small, too sick or too soon. These babies need the nutritional benefits and immunities of breast milk the most. According to the CDC, increased breastfeeding among black women could decrease infant mortality rates by as much as 50%. These are lost resources in our communities—future Martins and Malcolms, Rosas and Myrlies—that never realize their full potential. This is not the dream.
When you look at all the health conditions that breast milk—as the most complete first food, has been proven to reduce the risks of—African American children have them the most. From upper respiratory infections and Type II diabetes to asthma, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and childhood obesity—these issues are rampant in our communities. This is not the dream. This is a gripping public health issue and a civil rights violation.
Black women remained burdened with unique cultural barriers and a complex history connected to breastfeeding. From our role as wet nurses in slavery being forced to breastfeed and nurture our slave owners children often to the detriment of our children, to the lack of mainstream role models and multigenerational support , to our own stereotyping within our community—we have a different dialogue around breastfeeding and it needs special attention if we are to ever full realize the Dream
Many African American communities are “first food deserts”—it’s a term I coined to describe the desert like conditions in many urban areas I visited where women cannot access support for the best first food-breast milk. It is not fair to ask women, any woman, to breastfeed when she lives in a community that is devoid of support. It is a set up for failure. This is not how we advance the Dream.
As we look at the inequities of access to breastfeeding support in vulnerable communities and the repercussions of these inequities we know that Dr. King’s dream remains unfulfilled as long as black and brown babies needlessly suffer from poor health. Dr. King and those who asked for Freedom to Ring would have wanted better. In true celebration of his legacy, we all should hold ourselves accountable to demand better.
The March continues.
Kimberly Seals Allers