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Connecting Race, Old Maps, and Health in Cleveland

Robin Brown's great nephew was lead poisoned two years ago. (photo: Kay Colby/ideastream)
Robin Brown's great nephew was lead poisoned two years ago. (photo: Kay Colby/ideastream)

As she cradles three-year old Jackson in her lap, Robin Brown coaxes him to count.

"Say one … two … come on Jackson," says Brown.

But all she gets from her great nephew is a blank stare.

"This look is the look that hurts, when you see a look on a child's face that they want to do something but can't. That hurts," said Brown.

Almost two years ago, Jackson was lead poisoned and brown says its affected both his behavior and learning ability.  Jackson played in soil tainted by old lead paint chipping off a garage in Cleveland's Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. While lead poisoning can affect any child living in a house built before 1978, in Cuyahoga County the highest number of cases occurs among children of color – like Jackson.

Almost 20 years ago … while living in the same area, Robin Brown's daughter was also poisoned.

"It's really hard," she said, crying. "I'm talking about it two decades ago but it affects me as if the happened yesterday.

Besides lead poisoning, a number of other health problems disproportionately affect African Americans living in urban core neighborhoods.

Case School of Medicine researcher Matthew Kucmanic has spent hours manipulating  digital versions of historical housing maps. These so called "redlining" maps were sanctioned by the federal government and used race to designate certain areas as red zones where they would not back mortgages.

"We're looking at, what historically happened -- what factors influenced the social landscape of our community that now influence health," he said. 

Virtually all of Cleveland's African American population lived in areas of the maps marked red. resulting in a lack of investment in those areas.

"The basis on which those decisions were made were just bone chilling discriminatory," said Amy Sheon, who heads the mapping project.  

Using a special methodology, researchers have found correlations between redlining and some modern day health outcomes such as life expectancy, as well as deaths from cardiovascular disease.

"With red lining, you're forced to stay in a certain geographic area," noted Dr. Edgar Jackson, with the NEOMED-CSU Partnership for Urban Health.  "So you're confined to an area, then industry tends to follow the majority community, so the jobs go from that community.  And once the jobs go, then unemployment rises.  Then crime, then the social determinants of health really manifest themselves."

And until our nation can face that issue of racism being intentional we won't be able to overcome it.

As she sits on the porch with Jackson, Robin Brown reflects on her family's plight. Data from the Cuyahoga County Board of Health shows an association between redlining and lead poisoning. The house where Jackson was poisoned lies in a heavily redlined area.

But Brown has turned anger about lead poisoning into action.  She's formed an organization to help other families. She wants people to know her daughter-- who was severely poisoned -- graduated from college, and that, with the right interventions, parents can help children navigate some of lead's adverse effects.

Brown says … lead poisoning is a "fight" no parent should have to wage … yet one "history" has helped ordain that continues for children of color.

kay.colby@ideastream.org | 216-916-6410