The Weight of Oppression: Tackling the Black Obesity Epidemic

Michael Harrington’s timeless exposé The Other America, provides white suburbanites a glimpse of what Black folk had known for centuries: that there is a deep chasm between the rich and the poor.  And all too often, class lines and color lines converge.  

York, Alabama is like many predominantly Black towns in the “other America.” With shrinking tax base, few jobs, and fewer skilled workers to go after them, the town seems redlined by virtually every measure of opportunity. 

In fact, state-imposed redlining through the designation of a “waiver county,” essentially marginalizes the Black Belt from economic development and job creation.  A part of a “welfare reform” deal with local industries in the mid 1990s, waivers allow under developed counties to issue welfare without work requirements.  Fewer jobs and larger surplus labor pool mean lower wages and more social control.

Alabama specializes in social control. From voter suppression, hate violence to limiting labor rights, the region has locked most African Americans on the margins for more than two centuries.  When the Black majority of York had the “audacity” to elect its first Black mayor in the 1980s, the white elite choked off public resources in retribution.  All services -- save the post office and a small health clinic -- were moved to the county seat about ten miles away. 

I am in York to help bury my father in law, who like too many African Americans, has met an early death from the triple killers of diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke. In the place my children call Big Mama’s house, neighbors drop by bearing covered dishes and envelopes to help my mother in law get through this loss.  They bring fried chicken and pies and cakes and banana pudding – all of the things that helped my father in law to an early grave and threaten my mother in law 

It would be easy to judge them with my good job and easy access to Whole Foods.  In fact, much of the talk about obesity is heavy on blame and thin on solutions that change the conditions that got our communities here in the first place.

Pull back the lens from individual behavior to social context, and York is a classic example of how conditions create disease. York’s two “supermarkets” stock visibly decaying produce and high sodium, high fat and commercially prepared food.  Church’s Chicken is the main restaurant in town. And although folk with cars can drive more than 20 miles to Meridian, MS for most of what they need, high unemployment and low wages make buying food (much less healthy food) a real challenge. 

The hot term for a place like York is “food desert.”  Yet, desert does not do it justice.  We often think of deserts as natural phenomenon; something that happens to a place and cannot be stopped.  The lack of healthy food and safe places to play are often racialized and by design.  Wedged between the intersection of bad public policy and market neglect, they are the result of what policymakers and private providers believe a community deserves at its most basic level of  need – food.  

Bad policies and practices have meant bad health for millions. Seniors depend on the often unhealthy entrees provided by government agency meal delivery services.  Policymakers do not ensure equitable access to parks and recreation.  Kids are often cooped up in the home where parents who cannot “pay for play” at least know their children are safe.   High profit requirements of traditional markets render low income communities off limits.  Quality produce is hard to find in the neighborhood store.  Even many of our churches reinforce the worst of eating habits in traditional repasts.  

Good policies and public investments can bring dramatic change.  In places like Louisville, KY, the Healthy Corner Store initiative unites neighborhood markets with the local health department’s Center for Health Equity to increase healthy food options in historically marginalized communities.   Chicago’s Institute for Community Resource Development is turning neighborhoods green with urban farming and sustainable development.

And the National Black Church Initiative joins a new wave of church leadership to encourage institutional policies that support members in leading healthier lives.  

Tackling the obesity epidemic demands this kind of innovation because turning it around will require nothing less than the fundamental restructuring of our communities from places designed for our neglect and abuse to spaces where we thrive.   


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