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Health Parity Begins at the Ballot Box

Growing up on the Southeast side of Cleveland our votes were our voice. We were and still are the highest voting area in Cleveland. When I turned 18 my senior year of high school I went straight to the library to register to vote. It was one of the proudest moments of the life. Election Day came and as I walked into my polling location I was handed a card. Vote the Ticket! Not knowing any better I thought that I was doing my civic duty but what I didn’t realize is that everybody on the ticket wasn’t interested in me. You see in a two party system you get the good and bad of the party on the same ticket. So people that were not interested in changing my community had my vote because they were endorsed by the party. The setup to get shot up had begun. I used that ballot to seal the fate of my community election after election. What other community gives you the ammunition for the gun used to kill them.

Then it happened. I was home sick watching C-Span2 Book TV and a presentation by Colgate Associate Professor of Political Science Nina M. Moore was on she was discussing her new book, The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice. The book, explains how examination of more than 100 publicly available crime statistics reveals a nuanced picture of racial injustice, not simply at the hands of unequal policing at the street level, but due to a more complicated dynamic resulting from misguided laws supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

What the? What the? Both parties had screwed us. The elephant and the donkey had conspired to create laws that had disenfranchised black folks. Poor and vulnerable people had been set up by a system that they helped to design. The ballot had become our bullet.

Laws that impacted education, employment, housing and health inequity were being enacted with our eyes wide open. Our elected officials were benefiting from our demise.

Michelle Alexander author of The New Jim Crow published in 2010 is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement.

The following exert from her book states “As the United States celebrates its “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of black men in major urban areas are under correctional control or saddled with criminal records for life. Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books decades ago, but today an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights—including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. Today, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Yet as civil-rights-lawyer-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrates, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against convicted criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once labeled a felon, even for a minor drug crime, the old forms of discrimination are suddenly legal again. In her words, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Alexander shows that, by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.

The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us—to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.”

Then I remember that when I was younger I read the Kenner Commission Report about the racial unrest that had transpired across the US the report stated this ‘we are moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” In order to fix what was happening in the US we had to make a commitment to national action---compassionate, massive and sustained and back it with the resources to make it work. “ Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget –is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The National Colloquium on African American Health; Racism in Medicine and Health Parity for African Americans: The Slave Health Deficit Report states that the gold standards of health status and outcomes are measures of longevity, mortality, and infant mortality…As long as racism as a social construct exists in America, as long as myth of inferiority is perpetuated and disinterest in restoring health care parity persist, and as long as the majority is allowed to dominate, the health status of African Americans will suffer.

The National Medical Association called upon all individuals of conscience, as well as government and private and public health institutions, to unite and engage in a national dialog on the impact of racism on health disparities.

Our dialogue has to start at the ballot box. In order to really push for change the people that we elect must have the power to enact solutions. We cannot afford to only vote during the Presidential Campaign, local and state elections deeply impact our communities. We cannot afford to vote the ticket the ticket has not been kind to our agenda. We must work together black and white to ensure that the elected officials work towards the best interest of those community members that are disenfranchised. We must work together to hold elected officials feet to the fire. We must work to make sure that democratic and republican candidates are vetted before they receive our votes. The people that we elect to office will determine whether Health Parity in the African American Community is a priority.

Health disparities will continue to disproportionately impact African American communities until we learn to cast our ballot more wisely. We have to stop worrying about hurting the feelings of elected officials that are our friends and realize our friends are hurting us. You cannot say that you love me and turn a blind eye to my suffering.

Today 30 years after casting my first vote. I ride through my community one that has been ravaged by unemployment, foreclosures, homelessness, violence, poor schools, check cashing centers and not banks, pots holes, shootings, murders and mayhem and I say what the hell happened. My reply is always and emphatically I messed up and gave them the bullets needed to kill me. Well now I figured out the game and in November when I get out of my car and head into my polling station and someone reaches to hand me the endorsed candidate list without breaking stride I will say I won’t be needing that anymore “It’s a New Day in Cleveland”.

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