May 29, 2024


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Linda Villarosa on the Impact of the Racist Health Care System on “Every Body”

After decades of reporting on, and editing stories about, Black women’s physical and emotional health, Linda Villarosa has come to realize that everything she thought—everything we all thought—about health disparities in the United States was wrong. In her new book, Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation, Villarosa dismantles the notion of the Black health crisis as an individual problem and exposes the origins of racism in today’s health care system, which she’s gained a deeper understanding of throughout her career, at Essence magazine, as a college professor, as a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the 1619 Project, and through her own experiences living as a Black person in America. We spoke about the impact of a racist health care system on every body and what, in spite of it all, keeps her going. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Regina Mahone

Regina Mahone: How is structural racism taking a toll not just on Black people, but also on “the health of our nation”?

Linda Villarosa: It’s about what’s happening in the country compared to other countries. Why is our country so rich and why is our health care system so advanced, yet if you look at from birth to death, we have among the highest infant mortality rates compared to other wealthy countries. We have among the lowest life expectancy compared to other wealthy countries. And in between, we’re the only wealthy country where the maternal mortality rate is rising. So then I started thinking about those three things, and it also intersects with what’s going on with Black people, which to me equals inequality.

Black people have never had equal health since we came to these shores. And so then it’s like, well, why are we still thinking of this as a Black problem? This is a problem of the whole country. This is a problem we all have to solve in America. And to think of it more broadly helped me to say, “Wait a minute, if this isn’t a problem that Black people have to solve by ourselves, then I need to find a way to communicate what’s going on.”