Nia-Malika Henderson of Politico reports on Michelle Obama’s appearance in Philadelphia yesterday to discuss the national obesity epidemic as it is manifested in Philadelphia.
Though I know childhood obesity is a problem for Americans of all races, my localized experiences have lead me to associate the issues of race and obesity. Whites are not the majority in my city (most estimates as of 2000 say 41% of Philadelphians are white though others say up to 45%) but–not surprisingly–they enjoy better housing, employment, education and health than others. Blacks are approximately 43% (44% if the mixed race population is added) of the city’s population and account for about 40% of the city’s workforce. Despite the essential contributions the black population makes to the city, it experiences twice the unemployment rate of whites and considerably worse health.
Philadelphia has a long history of obesity. Its longstanding position on Top 10 Fattest City lists (#1 in 1999!) is usually explained by excessive consumption of cheese steaks and soft pretzels. These ‘delicacies’ originated in South Philly, originally a melting pot of Irish, Italian and other European immigrants. Though the city continues to promote the Irish/Italian image of South Philly (defined as the part of the city below South St.), the area has at least as many black people as whites and, if the large Asian population is considered, I think that much less than 50% of this cheese steak producing locale is white. While these foods are indeed enjoyed by many Philadelphians and are unquestionably bad for one’s health, the focus given to pretzels and steaks distorts the problem of obesity into a point of strangely self-deprecating (and very Philadelphian) pride and distracts from the real problems of poverty and access.
As a Philadelphian, I see obese black women more frequently than I see obese men (of any race) or obese whites(of any sex). Because of this experience/awareness (which may be heightened by the amount of nutrition and health advertising aimed specifically at racial minorities–currently trying to locate links), I’m always surprised when a discussion of obesity does not involve race.
Instinctively, I am glad that race is one part of the First Lady’s discussion of obesity. I support more open conversations about race, but much more importantly I support discussions which lead to policies that address the particular needs of underserved groups. But as I thought more about the racial makeup of the country, which was still 66% white in 2008, I began to wonder whether it is necessary (or more productive) for Michelle Obama to make race a part of her efforts against obesity. Isn’t obesity a problem affecting all Americans? Yes. Don’t I believe that the condition most directly conducive to obesity is poverty? Yes. Aren’t there poor Americans of all races? Yes. So why then, I wondered, is it important for Obama to address the racial aspects of the issue?
Race matters in this context because obesity is a complex problem; not only does it have multiple simultaneous causes (poverty, personal preference, misinformation, lack of access, etc.), it also has multiple manifestations. Race (“biological” or otherwise) is not a cause of obesity, but I think it can be a defining factor in a particular community’s experience of obesity. If the discussion of obesity is to lead to successful policy, it must acknowledge the internal diversity of the epidemic and must cultivate approaches tailored to each community’s experience of the problem.