Course Work | “When the Bough Breaks” Unnatural Causes Reflection

“When the Bough Breaks” Unnatural Causes Reflection

            One of the main themes of this course has been identifying and examining race and health. Whether that means unpacking the challenges that black health professionals faced to establish professions in health-related fields such as dentistry, public health, nursing or the racial barriers encountered by black varying black populations across America, race has been a major factor. More specifically, racial disparities in health outcomes have been especially pertinent regarding to discussions about race and genetics. Though we have established that “germs know no color” and that race is not a biological factor that can determines one’s health status, race based health statistics are telling and point to other social and economic factors in health. Such notable trends between race and health are expressed in a series of segments recounted in the documentary series Unnatural Causes: is inequality making us sick?  Particularly, the interviews and video clips detailed in the segment “When the Bough Breaks,” analyze birth outcomes, such as infant mortality rates, among African Americans compared to whites. The segments acknowledge the importance of environmental and social determinants in health, factors that don’t solely focus on race, yet force viewers to question the real impact that race has on health in America.

            One of the segments of the documentary focuses on two neonatologists, Dr. Richard David and James Collins, who set a goal to determine why African American babies are born too small at twice the rate of their white counterparts. In “Unraveling the mystery of Black-white differences in infant morality” the two doctors first looked at socioeconomic status, race and health to determine the role of class in birth outcomes between black and white babies. However Dr. Collins notes that after varying class and education differences within races, the racial disparities were still very significant. In other words, despite a black woman’s level of education or income, her birth outcomes would remain consistently worse than a white woman. The doctors determined that “lifelong minority health” and growing up as a black woman is not good for your health low (Unnatural Causes).. After noting that black babies who came from mothers with varying classes and education status had low birth weights no matter what, their hypothesis was that “racism takes a heavy toll on African American babies, even before they leave their mothers womb”(Unnatural Causes).

            The documentary segment uses Kim Anderson’s story to support that noteworthy claim. Kim Anderson is a well paid, Columbia University educated lawyer who has been in good health since she could remember. However, when she was pregnant with her baby Danielle, she went into labor with her two and a half months early; she had a preterm birth. Preterm and low birth weights in America are a serious health issue and disparity compared to other industrialized nations because our rates are so low (Unnatural Causes). Moreover, it becomes even more of a problem that within America a certain population, such as black women, are affected at higher rates than white women. “African American mothers with a college degree show worst birth outcomes than non Hispanic white women who never went to high school” low (Unnatural Causes). Though Kim Anderson doesn’t represent every black woman in America, her situation, high education and income frame her to represent a successful person in America and it seems that her blackness puts her and her unborn child at a disadvantage. The video segment points out that African immigrants to the US and white women born in the US had similar birth outcomes so its not racial or biological rather the social factors that affect black women who grew up in America (Unnatural Causes). Thus it’s not solely blackness that threatens health, rather the impact of growing up black in America that is menacing.

The “When the Bough Breaks” interviews and segments correlate to a research study that I had previously read, “Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Health The Added Effects of Racism and Discrimination” which essentially acknowledges how the stress of chronic racism on black women threatens their health in a way that doesn’t threaten the health of white women. It’s important to clarify that race itself is not suggested to have biological impact on health, rather being black and the stress that comes with it, due to the structural inequalities in America puts black people at greater health risks. Relating to our course as well as the video segments it would be interesting to compare the health systems, governments, personal interactions between doctors and patients and examine how they have changed over time, improved or whether or not they have changed at all. It’s interesting to see how human health which is seemingly objective is so subjective to change for each individual based off of the history of America and its notions of race.

This is especially relevant to what we have studied which makes it unequivocally shocking. Because we have been dissecting the history of black health professionals and public health from centuries ago, it is shocking and saddening to see that the same race related health disparities still exist in the 21st century, specific to America. Though the segments in Unnatural Causes are disheartening and further question the importance and necessity for health professionals to pay attention to race in determining health status, recognizing the link between race, chronic stress and related health impacts there is beneficial. In other words, the video segments as well as the science based research conducted by David Williams that show the impact of chronic stress; race and health outcomes can be used to improve the health of African Americans and certain races affected by it using physiological methods. Rather than disregarding or minimizing race as a factor, using newfound research that challenges previous beliefs can help to identify and discover preventative measures that protect the health of every American, black and white. The segments documented in “Unnatural Causes” forces us to look at America and the impact that our history has on our health and the disadvantages that American history has created for African American health professionals as well as citizens in general. Learning about the impact that being black and America has on health has forced me to question how do we change racial inequalities that are so far embedded into our society and systems of health? It’s a difficult question to ask, but at some point needs to be answered or else the deleterious health cycle will never be broken.



“Unnatural Cause: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?” PBS. 2001. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.

Williams, David R. “Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Health The Added Effects of Racism and Discrimination.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 896.1 Socioeconmic (1999): 173-88. Print.