HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Amid the balloons, cake and games at his best friend’s birthday party on a farm, 5-year-old Carter Manson clutched his small chest.
“He just kept saying ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’’' his mother, Catherine, recalled tearfully. “I picked him up and told him it was OK and to just breathe. Just breathe.”
It was the first time Carter had an asthma attack in public, and the inhaler he sorely needed was in the family car. Catherine calmed her terrified son and ran to get the inhaler; only then was Carter able to breathe easily.
“You say in your head as a parent that I’m going to be prepared next time,” Catherine, 39, said.
“But anything can trigger them,” she said.
Black children are more likely to have asthma than kids of any other race in America. They’re more likely to live near polluting plants, and in rental housing with mold and other triggers, because of racist housing laws in the nation’s past. Their asthma often is more severe and less likely to be controlled, because of poor medical care and mistrust of doctors.
About 4 million kids in the U.S. have asthma. The percentage of Black children with asthma is far higher than white kids; more than 12% of Black kids nationwide suffer from the disease, compared with 5.5% of white children. They also die at a much higher rate.
Across America, nearly 4 in 10 Black children live in areas with poor environmental and health conditions compared to 1 in 10 white children. Factories spew nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. Idling trucks and freeway traffic kick up noxious fumes and dust.
The disparities are built into a housing system shaped by the longstanding effects of slavery and Jim Crow-era laws. Many of the communities that have substandard housing today or are located near toxic sites are the same as those that were segregated and redlined decades ago.
“The majority of what drives disparities in asthma, it’s actually social and structural,” said Sanaz Eftekhari, vice president of corporate affairs and research of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. “You can tie a lot of the asthma disparities back to things that have happened, years and years and decades ago.”
Asthma is treatable. It can be managed with medicine, routine appointments and inhalers. But Black children often struggle to get treatment, and are more likely than white kids to end up in the emergency room with asthma symptoms.
Kamora Herrington, a community organizer in Hartford, Connecticut, doesn’t need to study the statistics to know that the children of her city are suffering.
“We know that our emergency rooms in the middle of the night during the summer are filled with children who can’t breathe,” Herrington said.
The prime cause, she said, is just as apparent.
“People need to demand change for real and people need to not be reasonable. At what point do you say, this is bull —? White supremacy and racism have everything to do with it.”
More from this series
This story is part of an AP series examining the health disparities experienced by Black Americans across a lifetime.
Birth — Why do so many Black women die in pregnancy? One reason: Doctors don’t take them seriously
Childhood — Black children are more likely to have asthma. A lot comes down to where they live
Teen years— Black kids face racism before they even start school. It’s driving a major mental health crisis
Adulthood — High blood pressure plagues many Black Americans. Combined with COVID, it’s catastrophic
Elders — A lifetime of racism makes Alzheimer’s more prevalent in Black Americans
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