How is it that in the richest country on Earth, life expectancy has been falling? This is the question that many policymakers and consumers of news have been asking themselves of late. Between COVID-19, drugs and the consequences of obesity (including high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems), we are digging ourselves an early grave. Still, we are living, on average, to the ripe old age of 77. More alarmingly, though, child and adolescent mortality rates have been rising — 18.3% between 2019 and 2021, the largest such increase in at least half a century.

Thanks to advances in modern medicine and car safety, these had been declining for some time, but now the rates of suicide, homicide, drug overdoses and injury-related fatalities have been growing. And new research from scholars at Virginia Commonwealth University finds that those deaths have been rising faster for young people who are Black or Native American. “Between 2014 and 2020, mortality rates increased by 36.7% in Black youth and 22.3% in Native American youth while increasing 4.7% in white youth,” a news release from the university said.

What is happening in Black and Native communities that is causing this level of violence? Black youth were 10 times more likely to die by homicide than white youth, and Native American youth were twice as likely to die by suicide than white youth. There is no doubt that both of these rates spiked during the pandemic. Another new study found that drug-related infant deaths more than doubled between 2018 and 2022. But the timeline on the child mortality rise begins long before then, going back to 2014.

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Inner cities have been plagued by spikes in violence in recent years and law enforcement in many major cities was hamstrung. Black neighborhoods often felt the brunt of this lawlessness. Native American communities, meanwhile, have long suffered from higher levels of violence and above-average rates of suicide. The isolation and sense of hopelessness in Native American territories is palpable — it is wrapped up in poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence and child maltreatment. Why, though, is it getting worse?

“At the end of the day, the history of systemic racism in this country lies at the root of this tragedy by creating gaps in the social, economic and environmental conditions in which children are being raised,” Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the VCU Center on Society and Health and a professor in the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine, explained. “Addressing these systemic factors is essential for mitigating the disproportionate risks of injury and disease experienced by children of color.”

It is perfectly possible that gaps in social, economic and environmental conditions explain the gaps in child mortality. But why would they explain the growth of gaps in child mortality? Are the authors suggesting that systemic racism is worse today than it was 50 years ago? What is the evidence for this? Surely the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow are still felt decades after they have ended, but the further we get away from these legal instruments of subjugation and discrimination, the better off we assume their victims will be. Does systemic racism explain why the racial gap in incarceration is larger in 2010 than it was in 1950? Or why the racial gap in marriage is bigger today than it was before the Civil Rights Movement?


This inability to make historical comparisons, and the fundamental flaw in temporal logic, is so common that no one even blinks now when high-level researchers make such claims. But blaming systemic racism for every problem that disproportionately affects certain groups makes it harder to understand the real reasons for these gaps and how to solve these problems.

If, for instance, you conclude that systemic racism is to blame for high suicide rates on, say, the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, you might not notice the high rates of child physical and sexual abuse there, which is much more likely to cause self-harm than the racial attitudes of someone living hundreds of miles away. And if you blame high homicide rates in the Black community on racism (despite the fact that most of these crimes are intra-racial), you would miss all of the other factors that might contribute to violence — from fatherlessness to variations in policing.

The increase in child mortality rates should worry us all. Though we live in an advanced society and have access to extraordinary technology and medicine, the lives of our children seem to be plagued by greater degrees of violence and injury. It’s important to be honest about why.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.

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