Over three days last week, Charleston, South Carolina hosted hundreds of health care providers, researchers, and advocates for the National Conference on Health Disparities. The city deeply rooted in a history of slave trade and Jim Crow provided a complex backdrop for a dialogue about racial health inequalities. U.S. Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC) brought the conference to Charleston and spoke passionately about the policies and programs needed to address startling gaps in health care education, access and quality, which persist despite progress in ending legal discrimination.
U.S Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) concurred with Clyburn, showing his support for policies to promote health equality such as funding for community health centers. Both legislators drew applause, laughs, and an occasional “amen” as they each reflected on the challenges they face moving these issues in Washington DC.
DHHS and CDC experts addressed the complexity of eliminating disparities, while noting recent national and state success stories. Dr. Walter Williams of the U.S. Public Health Service touted the national closing of the racial gap in children’s vaccinations as a major milestone. He credited education and community programming for the success. He described thriving initiatives in South Carolina, detailing a successful model of targeted community health education and chronic disease self management that has reduced amputations among African American diabetics. He emphasized the importance of community based programmatic solutions, supported by state and national policy.
All told, the Conference provided a warm and engaging space of shared learning, reflection, and rejuvenation for disparities advocates across the country. Soldiers in the fight for health equity shared triumphs and challenges, and the difficulty of fighting inequality in a country shaped and defined by it.
Congressman Clyburn provided a constant reminder of hope and inspiration. As Majority Whip, Clyburn is the third-ranking Democrat in the US House of Reps. The African American South Carolinian’s position is noteworthy, given the civil rights battles he has endured over decades and racial struggles in South Carolina in particular. The fight to end disparities is one more civil rights struggle for the country. We are now positioned better than ever to do this, as leaders emerge from communities engaged in emerging strategies that make a difference. The struggle continues, but we are on our way.