This Jan. 25, 2021, photo provided by Thomas A. LaVeist, shows him getting his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at Tulane University School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. A racial gap has opened up in the nation's COVID-19 vaccination drive, with Black Americans in many places lagging behind whites in receiving shots, an Associated Press analysis shows. LaVeist, dean of the school, is recruiting notable Black Americans to help promote vaccination. (Courtesy of Thomas A. LaVeist via AP)

BY RAWLE ANDREWS JR. & TINA TRAN

As we prepare to celebrate Juneteenth and the emancipation of previously enslaved peoples 156 years ago, it’s a good time to take stock of where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.

In January 1863, President Lincoln released the Emancipation Proclamation, but it took two-and-a-half years for that word, and its enforcement, to make its way to Texas. Union soldiers arrived in Texas and announced that previously enslaved people had been freed.

Rawle Andrews Jr.

Juneteenth symbolizes freedom in all of its forms. It spurs us to ask what liberty means to us, what the costs of freedom are, and how we can feel free. And the spirit of Juneteenth fuels AARP’s continued work to fight health and economic disparities today.

On the eve of this celebration, we stand with this belief: Health is freedom. Without it, you cannot live the life you want for yourself and your family.

We know that racial disparities are alive and well today. Blacks are more likely to live in areas with higher environmental pollution that can lead to chronic diseases such as asthma, cancer and heart disease. Older Blacks are less likely to get a flu vaccine and get cancer screenings less frequently.

Lack of access to affordable and nutritious food carries real consequences. Blacks are more likely than other populations to live in food deserts, with limited access to a supermarket or grocery store. Significantly, in Texas in 2017, Blacks accounted for 40 percent of the obese population, despite representing only 12 percent of Texans, according to Texas Health and Human Services.

And the problem is not just the prevalence of these conditions, but also that Blacks are more likely to die of serious diseases, according to local health departments.

On top of all that, chronic health conditions can force people into poverty as they spend down their savings and even sell property to pay for medical bills.

Tina Tran

We must address health status disparities that negatively impact the Black community. COVID-19 and lower vaccination rates, for example, have disproportionately devastated Black communities, taking countless lives and jeopardizing the health and financial security of even more. 

The good news is that these disparities are getting more attention, and that there are ways we can take action today to make a difference.

For starters, we can do a better job of collecting demographic information so that we can see the problems more clearly—and devise effective solutions to tackle them head on.

From there, we chart a path to address disparities. We can incentivize medical providers practicing in underserved areas. We can improve our cities and communities to allow people to access care, including through better transportation options and neighborhood design. We can make preventive services more widespread and accessible—and we can personally encourage our loved ones to seek them out. We can work to lower prescription drug prices to make treatments more affordable.

These challenges, and their solutions, may seem too large to solve. Yet, as Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

On June 19, 1865, history was made in Texas. Our state, then the most remote region of the Confederacy, finally learned that slavery had been abolished. The path forward to address health disparities in the Black community may be less dramatic and decisive, but it is just as critical. On Saturday, as we commemorate Juneteenth, let us not forget the racial disparities and inequities that persist to this day and let us keep fighting the fight to make things better.

# # #

Rawle Andrews Jr., a native of Houston, is AARP’s regional vice president who coordinates the Association’s work in the seven-most-populous states in the country. Tina Tran is AARP Texas’ director, overseeing the Association’s work statewide.