Black lives do indeed matter and we stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It is essential to end police brutality and all other forms of white supremacy, institutionalized racism, and systemic injustice against Blacks and other people of color, who have been disproportionately victimized, including in terms of disease, health, and healthcare. Because Black lives matter, Black health matters.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who described racism as “maximum hate for minimum reason” with the “maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking”, was a friend of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and they marched together for civil rights.
Inspired by Rev. King and Rabbi Heschel, we oppose all forms of racial discrimination and seek to reverse racism. We are aware that in the four centuries of Blacks in America, the forms of racism have changed, but the reality of racism has remained constant.
Within the universe of institutionalized racism and violence, there is another, often-neglected issue that also causes disproportionate harm to Black people.
Mahatma Gandhi once said “The most violent weapon on Earth is the table fork.” Charles Patterson, PhD, author of Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, provides some historical context: “The domestication/enslavement of animals was the model and inspiration for human slavery… the breeding of domesticated animals led to eugenic measures as compulsory sterilization, euthanasia killings, and genocide, and… the industrialized slaughter of cattle, pigs, sheep, and other animals paved the way, at least indirectly, for the Final Solution.” Indeed, Coretta Scott King stated that veganism was “the next logical extension of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of non-violence”.
African Americans suffer far more from diet-related diseases than non-Black Americans and Black Africans. African Americans are far more likely to suffer and die from heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and other diet-related diseases than Whites.
Diabetes is one of the most problematic and devastating of the common chronic diseases in western countries and in Black communities. Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes are many times more prevalent in Blacks living in western nations relative to those living in west African countries eating a more traditional low-fat, non-dairy, plant-based diet. Research shows that once an African American develops diabetes, they are over 240 times more likely to suffer a limb amputation and over 100 times more likely to go blind from retinal damage or end up on hemodialysis from renal failure. The African American community has the highest rates of renal insufficiency in the United States. Research has consistently shown that both the risk for, and severity of, type 2 diabetes can be markedly lessened, or even reversed, by adopting a plant-based diet.
According to Dr. Greger’s strictly non-commercial, non-profit, science-based, public service NutritionFacts.org, colon cancer is over 50 times lower among native African populations than among African Americans. For African Americans in their 50s, over half have diverticulosis, compared to less than 1% among Africans eating traditional plant-based diets. African Americans have a five times greater risk of dementia than Africans in Nigeria.
John Lewis, the filmmaker behind They’re Trying To Kill Us, realized that “We think that a lot of ailments and diseases are in our genes, but in reality a lot of the problems that we have are related directly to food.” Lewis went vegan after his mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006. He says “Talking to the doctors and understanding that her colon cancer was related directly to too much animal protein, coupled with fried fatty foods, et cetera, I thought to myself, not only can I help my mother and my family, but I believe we all deserve a right to live a better way.”
Heart disease, stroke, various cancers, diabetes, obesity, and Alzheimer disease rates among Africans increase substantially when they move to the United States and adopt an animal-based American diet. Further, “In a study of 50,000 African American women, women who ate more vegetables had significantly lower risk of the type of breast cancer hardest to treat.” The Standard American Diet is SAD, but it doesn’t have to be.
Historically, oppressors have intentionally and consistently used limited access to healthy foods as a means of creating ill-health in communities of color to keep their members sick, docile, preoccupied with their diseases, and thus, more easily controlled. Any meaningful discussion of the value and worth of “Black Lives” has to include improving “Black Health.”
Although it is often experienced by African Americans, it is not widely known that about 75 percent of African Americans are lactose intolerant, according to The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. In view of this, it is shameful that the government recommends dairy consumption for all people and that the dairy industry used African Americans in their “milk mustache” campaign ads to promote its inappropriate product.
The promotion of dairy to Blacks and other people of color, who are mostly lactose intolerant, and the requirement that milk be given to all children participating in the School Lunch Program (which is utilized by many students of color) is another form of institutional racism leading to and creating discomfort and disease. In addition, the provision of low-quality processed commodity foods and agribusiness warehouse products like surplus cheese to people of color through food support programs, such as WIC and others, also promotes and fosters the development of chronic disease.
Studies indicate that much of the reason for the very high disease rates for Black Americans is their “Southern” diet, what came to be known as soul food, with its deep-fried foods, lard, rich desserts, and other tasty but nutritionally-unhealthy foods, including processed meats, eggs, cheesy casseroles, and other high-fat dairy, sugary treats, as well as fasts foods and other processed junk foods. Of course, unhealthy diets are unfortunately widespread and not unique to African Americans.
It is worth noting that the “Southern” diet for Blacks was a consequence of slavery. As slaves, African Americans were given the refuse from their White owners, including ham hocks, chitterlings, lard, chicken necks, and other less desirable, less healthy scraps. And to kill or disguise what was in the food, it was typically deep fried. As with much else in a white supremacist society, these things were imposed on Blacks and then passed down generationally.
Correspondingly, there is too often a lack of sufficient fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and other foods that are high in fiber, complex carbohydrates, and phytonutrients for optimum health. The fat, sugar, and salt that make Southern food so tempting raises blood pressure to killer levels, making it deadly for African Americans. Some good news is that certain traditional southern foods, such as black-eyed peas, corn, yams, okra, and collard greens, are already very healthy.
Limited and unhealthy food choices are compounded by rampant poverty in the African American community, largely due to the ongoing history of racism, racial segregation, and economic inequality, resulting in food deserts and the inaccessibility of healthier foods at reasonable prices.
Dr. Terry Mason, former Commissioner of Health for Chicago, is featured in the powerful documentary Forks Over Knives. As an African American himself, he is keenly aware of the issues and knows how race intersects with class in America. Dr. Mason outlines that, in poor neighborhoods of color, “the diets are calorie-rich and nutrient-poor. This is the real problem. And, unfortunately, poor people are poor in everything. They’re poor in health, they’re poor in food choices, they’re poor in almost every aspect that you could think of.” That “poverty” includes a lack of potentially life-saving health education and information on how to modify traditional diets to promote better health.
It is another unfortunate aspect of the systemic, society-wide classism and racism in American culture that fast food outlets are deliberately targeted to poor communities of color. Moreover, these unhealthy products are subsidized by taxpayer dollars to make these disease-promoting items artificially cheap and easily accessible, especially for those in a lower socio-economic status.
Speaking of fast foods and junk foods, Dr. Mason says it plain: “These things are drugs. They have other deleterious side effects, not the least of which is adding a lot of empty calories,” which leads to ill-health. Dr. Mason’s recommendation? “If it walked, hopped, swam, crawled, slithered, had eyes, a mom and a dad, don’t eat it!”
The fact that it is poor diets behind the high disease rates of African Americans actually illuminates an avenue of hope, because diets can be changed and health can improve fairly quickly. Shifting toward nutritious, delicious, colorful, plant-based meals would sharply reduce the disproportionate levels of disease and death rates among Blacks.
In fact, Dr. Milton Mills, an African American physician, who is featured in What the Health?, another powerful documentary, has argued that Blacks and others should actually return to our early diets, when all humans were in Africa, concluding that we as humans are not designed to eat meat, even if we are capable of doing so. Dr. Mills shows through “comparative anatomy” that we as humans are very similar to plant-eating animals and quite different from meat-eating animals in a variety of physiological ways from our jaws and claws to our stomachs and intestines.
Fortunately, healthier, plant-based versions of soul food favorites are possible. Various herbs and spices can be used instead of salt for seasoning. People can reduce the amount of meat in dishes and add more vegetables. Plant-based meats can replace high-fat, high-cholesterol meat dishes. If the changes fit into a person’s lifestyle, they can be fun, satisfying, healthy, and sustainable. As an example, Chef Tamearra Dyson opened Souley Vegan in Oakland, serving plant-based Louisiana Creole delicacies since 2009.
Partly due to Dr. Alvenia Fulton’s and Dick Gregory’s early efforts promoting vegetarianism in the Black community in the 1960s, as well as advocates like Dr. Mason, Dr. Mills, Dr. Ruby Thomas, Chef Babette, Tracye McQuirter, Tabitha Brown, Rachel Ama, A. Breeze Harper, Angela Davis, Sen. Cory Booker, and many others, “African Americans are more likely to go vegan, reduce meat consumption, and follow a flexitarian diet for health and the environment than white people,” according to Liam Pritchett for LiveKindly.
African Americans have great role models for shifting toward vegan diets and it is essential that more Black people join them because African Americans have the most to gain from the health benefits of plant-based foods, since they experience the highest rates of chronic yet preventable, diet-related, life-threatening diseases in the country. And for Joe “Monk” Coleman of Plant Powered Brothaz, veganism “is an expression of love for yourself.”
Studies show that eating a healthy, plant-based diet, along with moderate exercise, not smoking, and not being obese can cut one’s risk of disability and death from chronic diseases by up to 90%! And of these, the most beneficial behavior is eating a plant-based diet. Medicare for All would also be an important component of good health and would be a huge benefit for the disproportionately-uninsured Black community, as well as the rest of the country.
In addition to health, plant-based diets are also better for animals, better for public health and preventing future pandemics, better for spiritual health, and better for the environment and fighting climate change. The founder of Vegans for Black Lives Matter, Gwenna Hunter, reminds us that “Every animal comes to this planet conscious and ready t receive and give love. Every animal is a gift to humanity not as food but as loving souls who are deserving of dwelling here equally with us and not for us.”
Alice Walker put it well many years ago: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites, or women created for men.”
At the 2012 Empowering Women of Color Conference, Angela Davis stated that we all must challenge “the whole capitalist industrial form of food production.” Dr. Davis mentioned that “Most people don’t think about the horrendous suffering that those animals must endure simply to become food products to be consumed by human beings.” Vegan food is truly good for the soul.
Ultimately, we must all realize that in addition to Black “lives” that Black “health” matters! Because without health, the quality, substance, and effectiveness of Black lives will be severely diminished, shortened, and of limited potential.
Our fervent hope is for our Black brothers and sisters — and everyone else — to have long, healthy, peaceful lives. Black lives matter, therefore Black health matters.
For further information, get the free, online African American Vegan Starter Guide. It features 40 pages of inspiration and information from African American vegan experts on how to transition to a plant-based diet, along with many delicious vegan recipes from renowned Black vegan chefs. Also, visit Black Vegans Today, Black Vegans Rock, and follow amazing human beings such as Gabrielle Reyes and Genesis Butler. And see the film They’re Trying To Kill Us.
Dan Brook, PhD teaches in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at San Jose State University and is a board member of San Francisco Veg Society and Advisory Board member of Jewish Veg. Dr. Brook is the author of Eating the Earth (in various translations).
Milton Mills, MD is a practicing physician and co-author of a two-part research paper entitled “Racial Bias in US Dietary Guidelines” that highlights the role animal food-centered, western/southern-style diets play in promoting and exacerbating disproportionate levels of chronic diseases in the African American community.
Richard H. Schwartz, PhD is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Vegan Revolution.