Sponsored by the nonprofit ministry, The Micah Center, the seminar was held recently at Hope Reformed Church in Southeast Grand Rapids. The panel discussion drew a capacity crowd who heard there's too wide a chasm between African-Americans' infant mortality rate compared with white babies.
What's not altogether clear is the reason for that mortality gap, said Sarah MacDonald, community program coordinator of the Fetal Infant Mortality Review program of Kent County who served as one of the workshop's panelist.
Many issues to consider
"There are so many issues: poverty, racism and access to (health) care that plays a role in infant mortality," MacDonald said.
According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, from 2011-13 there were 12.9 African-American babies who died in birth in Kent County per 1,000 live births compared to 4.1 percent of Caucasian babies of that same year.
That's an improvement over previous years, MacDonald said. When the Kent County Fetal Infant Mortality Review (KCFIMR) committee started reviewing cases of infant mortality in 2001, the percentage of African-American babies who died in birth in Kent County per 1,000 live births was 19.4 percent compared with 7.0 percent of white babies.
In 2006, the focus was expanded to include all infant deaths so that KCFIMR could compare what was happening across different race/ethnicity categories. So far, it has reviewed 572 infant/20 fetal deaths.
Toxic stress' ill effects
"Toxic stress" during pregnancy brought on by racism can determine whether there will be a live birth. It can also lower birth weight and cause premature births as well, Cowling said.
"Stress can come a lot of times from feelings of isolation," Cowling said. "We have dedicated financial resources for streets and senior citizens but not early childhood. We need an early childhood mileage. Unless we make this a matter of public policy, we're not going to be able to see the large scale results. We need a community dialogue about the stress."
This requires people to develop empathy for people who are unlike themselves, Cowling said. She advised people to " figure out ways to go outside our own bubble and seek to understand other perspectives as well."
"We need to admit the color of your skin and income impacts an individual," Cowling said. "Health services are not the only solution but they are part of the solution. We need to do a better job of understanding 'why.'"
Cowling's advise resonated with Chuck Skala, who joined The Micah Center when he learned African-American babies die at three to four times the rate than white infants after he attended an anti-racism seminar the Congregations Organized for Racial Reconciliation hosted.
"That is a startling statistic," Skala said. "This is something we can do something about."
Unable to attend the panel discussion at Hope Reformed Church due to a family emergency was Dr. Richard J. David, a neonatologist at Stroger Hospital of Cook County, in Chicago and a pioneering researcher in the field of infant mortality.