On major health metrics in the U.S., the shaded counties on the antebellum map still stand out today. Maps of the modern plagues of health disparities — rural hospital closings, medical provider shortages, poor education outcomes, poverty and mortality — all glow along this Southern corridor. (There are other hot spots, as well, most notably several Native American reservations.2) The region, known as the Black Belt, also features clearly on a new interactive created by FiveThirtyEight using mortality projections from researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The projections show that, while mortality is declining nationally, including among those who live in the Black Belt, large disparities in outcomes still exist. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be looking at some of the causes of these disparities in the Black Belt and talking to the communities they affect.
Though these health outcomes are associated with race, race is not the cause of disease. “There are certain genetic factors, of course,” said Ali Mokdad, one of the IHME researchers, who previously oversaw one of the largest public health surveys in the U.S. “But … we like to say, ‘Diseases don’t know race.’” Instead, Mokdad said things such as racism, economic deprivation and poor education — measures that together are part of what is called socioeconomic status — are largely to blame.