Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Putting an End to Separate and Unequal Health Care in the United States 50 Years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964


Since the end of the Civil War in 1865, the U.S. health care system has been structured to be racially separate and unequal. Ninety-nine years later, the enactment of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) was supposed to put an end to this racially separate and unequal health care system by mandating equal access to health care for all races. However, fifty years later, African Americans continue to receive separate and unequal treatment compared to Caucasians, in hospitals, nursing homes, and physician offices. As a result, racial disparities in health status and access to health care persist. Consequently, since 1964, research studies estimate that 4.2 million African Americans have died unnecessarily because of health disparities. Beyond the costs of lost lives, the fiscal costs of racial disparities in health care from 2009 through 2018 is estimated to be approximately $337 billion, including $220 billion for Medicare, $27 billion for Medicaid, and $90 billion for private insurers and individual’s out-of-pocket costs.

These racial disparities in health status and access to health care are due to racial bias. Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones defines racial bias as “a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how we look (which is what we call ‘race’), that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.” Research has shown a link between experiencing racial bias and an increased likelihood of experiencing cardiovascular disease, infant mortality, and the onset of hypertension. Moreover, racial bias prevents African Americans from obtaining the same educational, employment, and housing opportunities as Caucasians, thus limiting African Americans’ ability to access health care. Over three decades of empirical research studies show that racial bias prevents African Americans from receiving quality education, obtaining jobs, and accessing housing in safe, diverse, and environmentally-friendly neighborhoods. Due to racial bias, African Americans attend substandard schools, are more likely to be unemployed or employed with no health insurance, and reside in houses with environmental hazards (that contain, for example, lead, vermin, or are situated near toxic waste dumps) located in unsafe neighborhoods. As a result of these hazards and because many lack health insurance, African Americans are left with little or no access to health care, resulting in reduced health care options.

African Americans’ access to health care is further limited by racial bias within the health care system, which operates on three levels: structural, institutional, and interpersonal. As a result of structural racial bias, health care services in the United States are delivered based on ability to pay, leaving those who cannot pay (predominately minorities) without access to health care. Institutional racial biases contribute to the accumulation of health care facilities and physicians in wealthy, Caucasian neighborhoods, leaving those in poor, minority communities with no access to quality health care. Finally, interpersonal racial biases in the form of explicit and implicit racial bias result in some health care providers failing to give African American patients the same life-saving treatment that is provided to Caucasians.

To save African American lives and decrease the billions of dollars spent as a result of racial disparities in health status and access to health care, the U.S. government must stop funding and supporting racial bias. The 2014 Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Law-Medicine Symposium represents the first of many steps in this battle to eradicate racial bias in the U.S. health care system. The purpose of this interdisciplinary conference was to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Title VI by challenging the continuation of racial bias in the U.S health care system, which limits African Americans’ access to health care and causes their unnecessary morbidity and mortality. This introduction summarizes not only the symposium articles contained in this issue, but also the key presentations given at the symposium.

Section I provides a brief history of how the U.S. health care system has been separate and unequal since the Civil War because of racial bias and remains so in spite of the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section II examines the effects of structural and institutional racial bias on African Americans’ health status and access to quality health care, while Section III discusses the effects of interpersonal racial bias on African Americans’ health status. Finally, Section IV provides solutions to put a definitive end to racial bias within the U.S. health care system.


health law, civil rights, Title VI, Affordable Care Act, racial bias

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Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine

Publication Information

25 Health Matrix 1 (2015)

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