By Kelvin Wynn, MD


Privilege is an advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred. White privilege is deep-seated power irrespective of income, class, and effort. Therefore, how might one explain the inherent power of Black people?

Recent events of the heinous murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd suggest that Black lives are defenseless. The revelation (or confirmation) of health disparities brought to light by COVID-19 implies that Black lives are insignificant. The disparities and injustices Blacks in America face suggests there is a set of privileges isolated to the Black population. If this is true, this is what Black privilege looks like:

  • Short life expectancy if living in a predominantly black, financially poor, less educated neighborhood.
  • The lowest median household income among all races.
  • An average wealth of $700,000 less than that of white families.
  • An age adjusted death rate (black males) 1.2 times greater than white males.
  • A violent death rate 8 times the rate for Whites.
  • An overall life expectancy 3.6 years shorter than Whites.
  • Residential segregation forced by socioeconomic factors leading to adverse birth outcomes, increased exposure to pollutants, decreased longevity, increased risk of chronic disease and increased homicide.
  • Twice as likely to die from cancer than Whites with the death rate 29% higher in black men and 14% higher in black women.
  • An age adjusted death rate from coronary heart disease (CHD) higher than other racial/ethnic group and a rate of premature CHD death higher than Whites.
  • The highest HIV or AIDS diagnosis and death rate among teens and adults.
  • An infant mortality rate nearly twice as high than the rate in Whites.
  • The highest pregnancy-related maternal death rate among all other racial/ethnic group and 3 times higher than the rate of white women.

Is this the privilege Black people have earned? Similar to its counterpart, Black privilege is also built-in, unearned, and exclusive. However, in contrast, Black privilege is clearly a disadvantage and not something to advocate for others to have. One of the findings of The Institute of Medicine 2003 Unequal Treatment Report states: “Racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare occur in the context of historic and contemporary economic inequality, and evidence of persistent racial and ethnic discrimination in many sectors of American life.” In essence, Black privilege in America is synonymous with Black oppression.

The opportunity exists to make this version of privilege a mirage. A tremendous amount of action from every facet of society is needed for change to occur. But the first (and arguably the most important) change must occur in the heart of America and its citizens.

When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.

Ijeoma Oluo
“So You Want To Talk About Race”

Family physicians, among other medical specialties, are perfectly positioned to enact real change. Dr. I.R. McWhinney wrote about the family physician’s impact on the changing needs of society in his 1975 article “Family Medicine In Perspective”: “Family physicians have in common the fact that they obtain fulfillment from personal relations … their commitment is to a group of people more than to a body of knowledge. Their experience gives them a distinctive perspective of illness that includes it personal and social context … they learned that illness is intimately related to the personality and the life experience of the patient. They learned the inseparability of the patient and environment.” Being mindful of the pillars on which our specialty was built and putting them in practice is a daily actionable opportunity we have to change the narrative of Black privilege. Interaction Institute for Social Change and Robert Wood Foundation Life Expectancy by Zip Code are two resources to help transform your approach to this opportunity.

About the Author

Dr. Kelvin Wynn is the Thomas and Ellen Foster Endowed Chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine and Associate Professor of Clinical Family Medicine.