Congressional commission aims to keep Black men and boys alive and healthy
The Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys (CSSBMB), led by Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson, met on July 27, 2023, in Washington, D.C., to begin discussing what to do about health disparities faced by Black men and boys in America.
Howard University is a key partner in the endeavor.
The CSSBMB was established in 2020 within the office of the United States Commission on Civil Rights with 19 bipartisan members. It aims to make change through policy recommendations.
“This commission is a think tank where scholars think and come up with solutions; then those solutions will be put in the form of legislation for members of the commission who are (also) members of Congress to file as bills to change the trajectory of that,” said Wilson, referring to the health disparities she hopes to shrink.
According to her, the commission’s goal is to dismantle levels of structural racism, reform the criminal justice system, and ensure equitable access to health care to enhance the lives of Black men and boys.
Steven Horsford, Congressional Black Caucus chair and a 5000 Role Models of Excellence alum who spoke at a recent gathering for the organization, noted that the United States cannot close the gap in health inequity without ensuring culturally aware health care professionals are present in the medical field.
Historically Black colleges and universities such as Howard work toward fostering capable and efficient doctors and other health care providers.
Andrea Hayes, the first woman dean of Howard’s College of Medicine in its more than 100-year history, emphasized that more doctors who reflect the community they serve will encourage community members to seek proper care and medical advice, as well as improve the health care of Black and brown individuals.
According to Horsford, lack of access to nutrition, affordable food and health care, transportation and doctors contribute to the health disparities of Black men and boys.
“Today, Black men are more likely to die of preventable deaths,” said Horsford. “We’ve sat for too long as the health of our brothers, sons, and fathers has faltered. The poor health of Black boys and men has been in plain sight since the founding of this nation.”
Panelists at the CSSBMB meeting included Drs. Jules Harrell, Terry Fullum and Mark Johnson from Howard University School of Medicine and Dr. Derek Griffith from Georgetown University. They discussed how medical professionals and institutions could regain the trust of the Black community after a tainted history, and the avenues for improving accessibility and education to medical information.
Panelists highlighted the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that began in 1932, a four-decade-long government-funded experiment involving nearly 400 Black men from Alabama.
Researchers told the men they had come to Tuskegee to cure “bad blood,” but never told them they had syphilis. Even after penicillin became widely available in the 1940s, the men were left untreated to track the effects of the disease on their bodies. By the time the study was exposed and shut down in 1972, 128 of the men had died from the syphilis or related complications, while 40 of their wives and 19 of their children had become infected.
Johnson, who specializes in family medicine, said the Black community’s fundamental distrust toward physicians was present before and became exacerbated after the experiment. He questions what kind of policy the U.S. could give a community beaten down for generations.
“To shift from trust to trustworthy lies on the medical professional showing the community they serve that they are working toward earning the trust of the community,” said Griffith. “So, we have to do more to provide better care and demonstrate they can trust us.”
CSSBMB’s briefings discuss aspects of Black manhood, such as fatherhood and education, and last month’s conference dove into health disparities, which Wilson stresses has been glaringly apparent for some time now.
“It’s something that’s screaming at us every single day. The average life expectancy of a Black man is 61 – that’s far less than other Black people and other white people. Twenty-nine percent of them don’t even live long enough to collect their social security money,” she said. “We believe that a lot has to do with, for example, African American men and boys being significantly burdened by chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular conditions and gun violence.”
Wilson and the CSSBMB consider these issues interconnected, creating a complex web of systemic barriers perpetuating health disparities and limited opportunities for the well-being of Black men and boys. She argues prevention, among other social aspects, will improve their health.
“Everything can change if you focus on prevention instead of waiting, and whether it’s mentoring little boys or health care or criminal justice or any other disparity that affects Black men and boys, I truly believe there is a cure,” she said Wilson. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about – prevention.”