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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the inequities of the health care system: 'Black lives are at risk. Serious risk'

Kamilah Newton
·4 min read
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“Our lives are at risk. The health care system — and everyday individuals — have to do a better job to protect us,” writes NBA legend, activist, writer and UCLA Health Ambassador Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a compelling account of his unique experience as a Black American man living with serious health risks who happens to be a celebrity — speaking, most saliently, to how his experience compares with that of the Black American community at large.

In the Wednesday piece, “Black Lives Matter,” for WebMD’s social justice magazine series, Abdul-Jabbar begins by recounting his own health battles: “My life is at risk. Not just because I’m 73 with the usual annoying aches and pains that accompany age, but because I’m tall and I’m Black. At 7 feet, 2 inches, I’m statistically more prone to blood clots, lower back and hip problems, higher risk of cancer, especially prostate cancer, atrial fibrillation (a heart rhythm disorder), and a shorter life span in general. Being Black means I’m more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart problems, obesity, cancer, and a shorter life in general. Yup, tall people and Black people have shorter life expectancies. So far, in keeping with these statistical risks, I’ve had prostate cancer, leukemia and heart-bypass surgery.”

Still, he notes, “I’ve been fortunate because my celebrity has brought me enough financial security to receive excellent medical attention. No one wants an NBA legend dying on their watch. Imagine the Yelp reviews.”

Kareen Abdul-Jabbar wrote a compelling essay this week for WebMD. (Photo: WebMD)
Kareen Abdul-Jabbar wrote a compelling essay this week for WebMD. (Photo: WebMD)

Further, Abdul-Jabbar says he’s lucky that one of his sons is an orthopedic surgeon while another is a hospital administrator, affording him with free, at-will medical advice. But while he’s grateful for his advantages, he writes, “I’m acutely aware that many others in the Black community do not have the same options and that it is my responsibility to join with those fighting to change that. Because Black lives are at risk. Serious risk.”

Abdul-Jabbar goes on to draw connections between the nation’s state of racial affairs and health outcomes in Black communities, pointing to “a wide spectrum of health threats built into the foundation of American society as solidly as steel girders holding up a bridge.”

He explains, “Most people know this is true, though some will deny it because they fear removing those rusty girders will cause the whole bridge to collapse. The truth is that those girders are already malignant with rust and will eventually collapse if we don’t address the underlying rot of systemic racism. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge has 200 ironworkers, electricians, and painters who daily maintain the bridge’s integrity. If we want America to maintain its cultural integrity, we need to fix its structural flaws —and we need to do so on a daily basis.”

Kareem Abdul Jabbar playing in the  Harlem Globetrotters v Kareem Allstars in 1995. (Photo: Action Images)
Kareem Abdul Jabbar playing in the Harlem Globetrotters v Kareem Allstars in 1995. (Photo: Action Images)

Abdul-Jabbar highlighted organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which, he says, are doing the work to address these longstanding issues — while also recognizing one of the most widely known, Black Lives Matter (BLM), a “less a traditional organization and more a movement of loosely affiliated activists across the country united by the credo that is their name,” he says.

“BLM started organizing in 2013 … But by 2020, after a series of police killings of unarmed Blacks that culminated with the suffocation of George Floyd, BLM had grown into the largest protest movement in the history of the United States. … But police brutality is merely the most dramatic and violent attack on the lives of African Americans. … The more insidious and damaging threat to the health, lives and economic well-being of Black Americans is a health care system that ignores the fact that, though they are most in need of medical services, they actually receive the lowest level,” writes Abdul-Jabbar.

As he connects the dots between COVID-19 disparities, higher health risks and a lack of job opportunities — what he calls “threads” in a “giant quilt that smothers the Black community” — he argues that the complications of pulling on any of them is that “one thread leads to another, to another, to another — each forming an interlinking pattern that seems impenetrable and unassailable.”

Leaving readers — and all of the U.S. — with a word of advice, Abdul-Jabbar compares what it’s like to be Black in this country to the 1993 Bill Murray classic, Groundhog Day.

“It’s as if the Black community is trapped in Groundhog Day in which every day we fight racism, prove it exists, see gains, and then wake up the next day to all the same obstacles. In the movie, Bill Murray escaped the cycle by becoming selfless, caring more about others’ needs than his greedy desires,” Abdul-Jabbar writes. “That’s how America will escape this self-destructive behavior.”

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