What does a viral social media story of an exotic dancer in the 1960s have to do with the health and well-being of Black children today? A recent series of posts on the Instagram account “Humans of New York” detail Tanqueray, nee Stephanie, a septuagenarian, bedazzled, faux mink–adorned spitfire and the scandalous tales of her childhood and life as a Black burlesque dancer in mid-century New York City. On the surface these stories are entertaining. However, as a pediatrician in Chicago, when I read these accounts, my thoughts turned to the darker undercurrents of her stories including child abuse, racism, and sexism: things my patients experience daily. The robust response to her fascinating life has taken social media by storm. However, her stories serve as a reminder that underserved Black women’s and children’s rights are still under fire and remind us just how little has changed in the last 50 years.
Stephanie’s story starts with details about physical and mental abuse by her mother, her pregnancy and her incarceration, all before she was out of her teen years. It is well-described that traumatic events in childhood, such as abuse, neglect, or violence, can affect future health and wellbeing.
Recent studies have shown that Black children are more likely than white children to have experienced adverse childhood experiences, such as parental death, parental imprisonment, and witnessing domestic violence. Despite more recent drops in teen pregnancies, studies still show that Black teen birth rates are nearly twice that of white teens. According to the Department of Justice, Black youth are more than five times as likely to be detained or incarcerated compared with white youth. If we consider Tanqueray’s status as a Black adolescent female in today’s landscape, compared with white female adolescents, she would still have higher risk of being obese, not having health insurance, poor access to needed medical care, having any sexually transmitted disease, perpetrating and being a victim of violence. Why has nothing changed and why do underserved Black children continue to be more at risk?
In the U.S., race is considered a key social determinant of health. It is a driver of health inequities and has an established association with poverty, discrimination, residential segregation, and unequal access to health care. Institutionalized and systemic racism persists today. Historically, this took the form of slavery and Jim Crow laws, while current practices such as redlining and discriminatory employment tactics continue this terrible legacy. These all contribute to higher risks of disease and decreased opportunity.
In our country, race determines access to vital resources such as money, knowledge, power, and the resources to avoid and treat diseases. In addition, racism has an additive effect on other marginalized communities, such as LGBTQ children and children of immigrant families.
In Chicago, there is a clear divide. In predominantly Black neighborhoods on the South and West sides of the city, children have very low opportunity. They live 16 years less than children born on the North side or in the Loop. In Chicago, the infant mortality rates in Black infants are nearly four times that of white infants.
Stephanie’s story is captivating and a redemptive one at that, as she is clearly a survivor, and her GoFundMe campaign has raised over $2 million dollars. But her tale should be a cautionary one. We must remember she is emblematic of the inequities that still exist today and a reminder that when children from problematic childhoods take their problems into adulthood, the struggles continue.
We can do better than survival. This terrible year proves it. Things we take as a given, such as schools, access to healthy food, safe areas to play, and health care, are not extended to children in marginalized communities.
Despite deep funding cuts to the National Institutes of Health, including programs that benefit low-income children and their families, many healthcare institutes are poised to partner with and invest in their at-risk communities to promote children’s health beyond the walls of the hospital.
And, finally we must use this election to vote out politicians who support racist rhetoric and practices. Black children’s lives depend on it.
Dr. Sheryl Yanger, a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project, is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.