So I wake up Saturday morning to this New York Times piece, Tackling Infant Mortality Rates Among Blacks, and by story’s end, I’m heated. I mean, I’m glad the Times did the story; the more attention drawn to the fact that 13.3 black babies out of 1,000 die every year—almost double the national average and higher than Sri Lanka (!)—the more chance that someone will actually figure out why tens of thousands of African American children die before age 1. But this story had problems.
My beef? While the story rings the alarm on the “quiet crisis” that lacks “the public discussion or high-profile campaigns that accompany cancer, autism or postpartum depression,” as usual, it falls right into the trap of completely devaluing the complexity of the problem by stereotyping black mothers. Witness the subject the Times story highlights: A poor, uneducated, 20-year-old pregnant black woman from Pittsburgh who the reporter suggests had to be talked into actually wanting her baby, and has so little self-control or pre-natal intellect that she’s spent the last seven months gorging on chips, soda, tacos and her “mama’s cooking,” gaining 50 unhealthy pounds that could put her baby at risk. Her baby has a chance of surviving only because of Healthy Start, a nonprofit group that, despite scant federal and absolutely no local financial support, manages to give in-home pre-natal care to moms-to-be who qualify for and need their services.
The piece makes the story of that mom-to-be all of our stories—puts the black infant mortality onus squarely on our shoulders by suggesting if we planned our pregnancies, ate better and were smart enough to seek out and follow up with quality health care, our babies would live.
Stereotypes of black women, much?
The real story, it seems, is in this paragraph:
Recent studies have shown that poverty, education, access to prenatal care, smoking and even low birth weight do not alone explain the racial gap in infant mortality, and that even black women with graduate degrees are more likely to lose a child in its first year than are white women who did not finish high school. Research is now focusing on stress as a factor and whether black women have shorter birth canals.
But this nugget of information receives extremely short shrift, meriting nothing more than a sentence in a cover story that goes on for a good 1500 words. In a story in a Saturday paper, the least-read paper of the week.
Thanks, New York Times. Way to tackle a subject that your story admits is an important one. *insert image of Denene slow clapping here*
Might I suggest that your reporter direct his attention to Persistent Peril: Why African American Babies Have the Highest Infant Mortality Rate In the Developed World, by Ziba Kashef? The story, written for ColorLines RaceWire, does a fine job of striking to the heart of the matter and giving REAL reasons for why our babies (and other babies of color) may suffer higher infant mortality rates, without leaning on stereotypes. It also gives some suggestions for how, exactly, African American moms-to-be and the people who love them can get the support we need to safely usher our most precious cargo into this world and through their first year. It is, in my opinion, the perfect example of why black-focused media entities like ColorLines—and MyBrownBaby!—exist. Why we’re necessary.
When it comes to coverage of our community in mainstream media, I’m tempted to lean on my mother’s mantra: If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. But that would be letting them off way to easy, wouldn’t it? I have the perfect suggestion: how about reporters, editors and producers at these newspapers, magazines and radio, television and cable shows bother just, like, do your jobs well? Report and present stories about black folk with the same effort, zeal and passion as you do stories about your own. Start there, and maybe we’ll actually get somewhere with coverage that says something—and counts.