FAYETTEVILLE, AR - — In the New South, access to voting has been cited as a measure of progress. But look at other factors and a different story emerges, according to Pearl K. Ford, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas.
“You can’t predict peoples’ life opportunities just because they have access to voting,” Ford said.
In African Americans in Georgia: A Reflection of Politics and Policy in the New South, Ford brought together essays by a diverse group of scholars to provide a comprehensive study of politics and public policy issues with implications for African Americans in Georgia. Chapters examine the systemic barriers to political representation as well as the public policies that adversely impact quality of life for African Americans. For example, the chapter on health examines disparities at the neighborhood level and makes proposals to improve health equity in the state.
“The studies represented in this volume offer an understanding of progress but also the depths of the legacy of racial segregation that now manifests itself through structural racism and public policy limitations,” Ford wrote.
Ford introduced the volume with discussion of Georgia in the New South. The idea of a New South attempts to separate the South of today from a history of racial violence and an economy dependent on slavery and later on the exploitation of people of color. Georgia, she wrote, is known as progressive because of the dynamics of the metropolitan area of Atlanta.
In contrast to other Southern states, Georgia “has been successful in electing African Americans to the state and local offices; however, the substantive impact of their presence continues to be debated,” Ford wrote. Electoral gains have not necessarily translated to equity in education, health and criminal justice, all areas that are examined in African Americans in Georgia.
“I think in particular the issue of health disparities and health inequities, that is, the unequal opportunities to be healthy, impact the state in important ways,” Ford said.
The ninth most populous state, Georgia’s economy is among the largest in the country. Yet, it ranks 40th in overall health status, and from birth to death, African Americans “bear the brunt of the burden of poor health and limited access to health care.”
Ford and colleagues Dionne C. Godette and Chandra L. Ford wrote a chapter on health disparities in Georgia, noting that social conditions, such as housing, education and socioeconomic status, affect the health of all Georgians. Serious health disparities, they wrote, result from unequal opportunities to be healthy.
Opportunity and lack of opportunity can be observed at the neighborhood level.
In neighborhoods dominated by African Americans or Hispanics, residents have high levels of poverty and few opportunities for steady employment. They send their children to low-performing schools, shop at convenience stores because there are few grocery stores, and have limited access to good health care.
“Although blacks in segregated neighborhoods may know about proper diet and exercise and have positive attitudes toward seeking care,” the researchers wrote, their ability to follow through on good health habits is limited by the number of health care providers in their community, their access to fresh food, and safe opportunities for recreation and exercise.
The researchers’ examination of the most recent health data from the Georgia Department of Community Health revealed “even the best counties have significant work to do on multiple indicators in order to improve health equity for minorities in the state.” To address the problems, they proposed that the state of Georgia fund increased research to better measure and analyze health disparities as well as support communities in addressing health inequities in various ways and support safety-net health-care systems across the state.
In conclusion, the researchers wrote, “Continued failure to integrate enacted state and local policy initiatives related to social justice and health will represent a conscious decision to perpetuate disproportionate rates of disease among blacks and other minority groups within the state.”
Ford is an assistant professor of political science in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. Godette is with the University of Georgia College of Public Health, and Chandra Ford is with the UCLA School of Public Health. African Americans in Georgia was published by Mercer University Press.