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ETHN 142: Medicine, Race, and the Global Politics of Inequality
March 20, 2012

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Racism, Food Environments, Obesity and Hunger

Racism’s role in the food system is perhaps one of the most invisible
manifestations of racial injustice. Yet, racism dictates one of the most basic elements of
life by its determination of the ease or difficulty of access to healthy and unhealthy foods.
Food availability is structured into communities by convenience stores, grocery stores,
supermarkets, and lack thereof. Often the food racially segregated communities can
access are insufficient in nutritional value, yet are calorie-dense enough to satiate hunger
through the infusion of fat, salt, carbohydrates, and sugar. Of course the food that these
communities can access doesn’t just end in their mouth. Rather, the structure of
neighborhoods determine eating patterns that often result in health problems when there
is a lack of access to healthy foods while an abundance of unhealthy foods. We find that
at the same time as there is an overabundance of calories, there is a lack of access to
foods that truly nourish their bodies. Racism and the food environment interact to
determine the eating behaviors in these communities, coupled to health disparities of
obesity and hunger.
Historical racism has established “proper” housing for African American and
Native American populations in formal and informal ways. Historical racial segregation
during the time of Jim Crow Laws meant the physical separation of facilities for Blacks
and Whites as well as the equality of provision these facilities provide. De jure forms of
segregation, those enforced by law, ended after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education
of Topeka determined separate educational facilities as unequal. The Supreme Court

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worked to enforce decisions after the Brown v. Board of Education decision passed to
thwart off segregation of facilities. However, de facto segregation persists despite its
absence in overt legal forms. Racial segregation continues to be common in the present
day in certain neighborhoods that have been fashioned by multiple factors like housing
discrimination and redlining. Redlining is currently at play in racially dense areas to deny
access to basic services and goods like health care and supermarkets. Native American
housing segregation began as part of a dark history of colonization, deportation, and
racial segregation through the establishment of reservations where most Native
Americans currently reside. Racism worked to originally locate the “proper” places for
African Americans and Native Americans to dwell, but these segregated housing features
persist until this day for both communities. Although reservations govern by self-rule of
local tribes, racially segregated African American communities are greater subjected to
the norms of Anglo-American culture and the daily effects of racism through interaction
with other ethnic groups. Regardless of the differences these two populations have in the
diversity they are exposed to and location of their communities (reservation versus
mainly inner cities), both groups experience a permanent racism from memory of history.
Even more potent and present, both populations experience racism that structurally
determines their access to healthy foods in their communities.
African Americans and Native Americans experience a persistent institutional
racism of limited access to healthy foods yet adequate access to unhealthy foods. Rachel
Slocum, writing her paper on racism and the food system for the Outreach and Cultural
Diversity Committee of the Community Food Security Coalition, explains that racism

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supports the decision-making process of which businesses and corporations can have a
place in certain communities (Slocum 22). Often grocery stores and businesses are
looking to place a branch of their operations in places that will yield greater profits. The
location of stores in communities is inherently strategic to maximize profit. Ethnic
Studies and Urban Studies and Planning Professor Gabriel Nathaniel Mendes at UC San
Diego writes in his book, Psychiatry Comes to Harlem, about the emergence of the
Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic in the predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem,
New York in 1946 (Mendes). He explains how the institution was the first outpatient
psychiatric clinic that emerged in response to the needs of the community at the time. As
a result of the effects of racial discrimination, the Lafargue Clinic was established to meet
the needs of the black community in receiving mental health care. The example of the
emergence of the Lafargue Clinic demonstrates the power of creating institutions that
provide treatment to the accumulated effects of racism in forms of mental illness. The
clinic serves as an example of the way that invisible and legal forms of racism worked to
create a visible outcome of affecting bodies with mental illnesses. In the same way,
racism in the food system acts as a silent death affecting African American and Native
American populations. Paul Farmer, a physician and professor at Harvard University,
writes in “An Anthropology of Structural Violence” to define and discuss the persistence
of structural violence. He explains such violence to be exerted systematically as part of a
social machinery of oppression to make ordinary tasks extraordinarily difficult. The food
system for African American and Native American communities is victim to structural
violence by the extreme difficulty of finding healthy foods and an easy way of access to

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unhealthy foods. Thus, “everyday life is shaped by the historical processes and
contemporary politics of global political economy as well as by local discourse and
culture” (Farmer 318). The structural violence of racism in the food system acts in an
effectual way to bring about early illness and suffering in communities through the
development of obesity as well as hunger.
The proper “place” of African Americans and Native Americans in racially
segregated communities with poor food environment has health effects of
disproportionate rates of obesity and hunger. Ralph Bang writes in “Race in America:
Restructuring Inequality, Mental Health Report,” the fifth of seven reports on the Race in
America Conference to conclude that the environment has tremendous effects on a
person’s health, specifically relating to people of color and immigrants (Bang 17).
Sherman James, a Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy in Duke University
writes in “John Henryism and the Health of African-Americans” goes further to discuss
the community-based and policy effects of racial and ethnic health disparities. He
specifically focuses on how African Americans suffer disproportionately from
hypertension as a result of having to frequently mentally cope with the overabundance of
social stressors, but his and Bang’s understanding can be applied in regards to the food
environment of a community (James 165). James speaks of the effects of the environment
as responsible for susceptibility to certain health problems. In way that the African
Americans and Native Americans have a low quality food environment, their healthy
becomes influenced through the availability and accessibility of certain food ideas.
Established eating behaviors have consequences for health, but the eating behaviors

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themselves are determined by the landscape of food accessibility and availability. The
redlining of healthy markets that are absent from communities to the reverse redlining of
the abundance of convenience stores, fast-food chains, and liquor stores they experience
inevitably manifest themselves in health disparities of African American and Native
American populations. The Center for Disease Control reported in 2010 of the health
disparities and inequalities in the U.S. by ethnicity/race. They discovered that obesity is
most prevalent among blacks (CDC Health Disparities Report) while the National Relief
Charities discovered that the rates of food insecurity and hunger among Native
Americans are twice the rate for the “general U.S. population, and three times higher than
the rates for White Americans” (“NRC Research: Food Insecurity and Hunger”). The
outcome of general food insecurity that results in obesity and hunger are to blame largely
on the food environments African and Native Americans find themselves in.
Disproportionate rates illnesses that are affected by diet must take into consideration the
effect of the food availability landscape. Although African Americans suffer more from
the consumption of unhealthy food items that are readily available in their communities,
Native Americans suffer more from hunger due inaccessibility of healthy foods. These
populations are constant victims of racial injustice by structural barriers built in their
communities that prevent them from accessing health and culturally appropriate foods
(Blue Bird Jernigan et al.). Structural violence works to maintain the unhealthy food
phenomenon while ensuring that healthy food isn’t available. The effects of these food
environments result in prevalent health problems related to diet where people are like the
walking dead (Farmer 315). Geographer and Ethnic Studies scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore

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in her 2007 study of the politics and economics of the prison system in California,
Golden Gulag, explains how racism leads to premature death (28). It is clear that in
racially segregated communities of African Americans and Native Americans, there is a
disproportionate vulnerability to premature death as a result of the structure of their food
environments. These communities live in constant food oppression, where an ordinary
task of eating a healthy diet becomes an extraordinary feat.
African Americans and Native Americans living in racially segregated
communities are oppressed by their level of food insecurity. These communities deserve
justice and liberation from their disparity of access to food that is coupled with racialized
neighborhoods. Liberation can be accomplished after truths of racism in food
environments are first acknowledged. Liberation will come once the problem is first
deemed visible. We cannot leave these communities for dead. If discrimination and
institutional forms of oppression are not considered in relation to the food system, it is
questionable whether cohesive community food systems can even exist. If community is
to have meaning, the intersection of race must be considered in how it shapes the lives of
people within communities. I will end with a quote from Farmer, “We can best contribute
by rendering visible these erased and unexpected linkages between violence, suffering,
and power” (Farmer 318).
Works Cited

Bang, Ralph and Davis, Larry, “Race in America: Restructuring Inequality, Mental
Health Report,” The Fifth of Seven Reports on the Race in America Conference

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(06/06/11). Center on Race and Social Problems, School of Social Work,
University of Pittsburg. Access online 3/19/12:
Blue Bird Jernigan, Valarie, Salvatore, Alicia, et al. “Addressing Food Insecurity in a
Native American Reservation Using Community-based Participatory Research,”
Oxford University Journal, September 1, 2011. Access online March 20, 2010:
Fact Sheet- CDC Health Disparities and Inequalities Report, U.S. (2011). Access online
March 20, 2012:
Farmer, Paul, “An Anthropology of Structural Violence,” Current Anthropology
Volume 45, Number 3, June 2004, 305-17.
Gilmore, Ruth, “Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing
California”, (2007).
James, Sherman, “John Henryism and the Health of African-Americans,”
Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry (1994) 18: 163-182, 1994.
Mendes, Gabriel, “Psychiatry Comes to Harlem,” in A Deeper Science: Richard
Wright, Dr. Fredric Wertham, and the Fight for Mental Healthcare in Harlem,
NY, 1940-1960, 111-52.

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“NRC Research: Food Insecurity and Hunger,” 2006, National Relief Charities. Access
online March 20, 2012:


Slocum, Rachel, “Dismantling Racism in Community Food Work,” Outreach and
Diversity Committee, Community Food Security Coalition, October 15, 2004.
Access online March 20, 2012: