ST. PETERSBURG — From birth, Black infants face mortality rates two to five times higher than white infants.
It’s a statistic that sheds light on only one aspect of the disparities affecting St. Petersburg’s Black residents, which were outlined in a recent study of structural racism in the city presented to the City Council in early December.
Beginning in infancy, well-documented inequities — across myriad facets of life and perpetuated by structural racism — cause what experts call the “weathering” effect of racism. This effect adds stress to the daily lives of Black residents, thus leading to deteriorating health.
This summer, the council voted unanimously to declare racism a public health crisis in unison with cities across the nation.
Unequal access to healthy food, culturally competent health care, safe and affordable housing and stable job opportunities — often referred to as social determinants of health — perpetuate health disparities, from high rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death, to Black men dying from colon cancer at early ages. The maternal mortality rate for Black women is four to five times higher than that for white women, regardless of income, education or lifestyle.
In Pinellas County, Black residents face a higher mortality rate than any other racial group for all top causes of death, except lung cancer, according to the study, which examined city and county data.
Ultimately, white residents are more likely to outlive Black residents. In some neighborhoods, the study reports, white residents’ life expectancy is well over a decade longer than that of Black residents.
The study says health is only one of many facets of daily life in which Black folks encounter structural racism.
The history of St. Petersburg’s racist history is on display in the 200-page study that examines its modern-day impact. It quantifies the structural racism ingrained in the city’s policies and practices.
The $50,000 study was conducted by a team from the University of South Florida, including math professor Ruthmae Sears, who served as the lead investigator, as well as information systems professor Johannes Reichgelt, psychology professor James McHale, education professor Dana Thompson Dorsey, environmental geography professor Fenda Akiwumi, historian Gwendolyn Reese, and activists Tim Dutton and Gypsy Gallardo. Y. Michelle Bradham-Cousar, Jabaar Edmond and student collaborators Jalessa Blackshear and Casey Lepak also contributed.
The study defines structural racism as “an institutional system that perpetuates inequality, disparities, and injustices within a community,” which includes historic and modern policies and practices that contribute to inequities. It also defines race according to the U.S. Census.
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The authors argue increased awareness and acceptance of the generational impacts of racist policies will help produce solutions to reduce the gaps across all disparities created over decades.
In addition to health, the study examines the inequities that persist within the criminal justice system, education and economics.
The median income of Black residents is 73 percent of that of white residents, regardless of education level, the study says. Additional education raises income but does not erase the racial gap. And it varies by field.
In Pinellas, the 2016 median hourly wage was $20.20 for white employees, while the average wage for Black employees was $14.80. Under that calculation, Black employees earned $216 less in pay for a 40-hour week, the study says, and earned $11,000 less a year compared to white employees.
Inequities can be seen in home ownership rates, too, where rates are significantly lower in areas of the city with a large percentage of Black residents compared to predominantly white areas. Nationally, just over 40 percent of Black Americans own their home compared to over 70 percent of white Americans.
The study examined the criminal justice system and found that in most offenses that involve officer discretion — when officers have leeway whether to make an arrest — the percent of Black folks charged far exceeds their representation in St. Petersburg’s population.
For example, more than 70 percent of all residents charged with “resisting arrest with violence” in 2020 and the first three months of 2021 were Black, though they make up only about 20 percent of city residents.
After the study was presented, a majority of the council has since voted to accept its findings. Members Robert Blackmon, Ed Montanari and Gina Driscoll voted against a program of reparations to address the inequities.
Mayor-elect Ken Welch will make history Thursday when he is inaugurated as the first Black mayor in St. Petersburg history. He believes the study strengthens the need for the city to act to improve racial equity.
“We can’t be afraid to have these conversations,” said Welch. “It is difficult but it is reality.”
The study recommends the city undertake these solutions:
- Continue supporting the work started in the study.
- Create an equity department under the mayor’s office.
- Create and implement a measurable accountability strategy for addressing race equity.
- Evaluate the possibility of reparations.
- Advance the unanimous approval of a permanent resident race equity board.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Tampa Bay Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.
Read the study
Read the report on the effects of historical and modern-day racism on the lives of St. Petersburg’s Black residents.