07/09/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

The New 'Black Death': Why Are Black People Dying at Record Rates in Chicago?

They say that no man knows the number of his days and that death comes like a thief in the night. However, for the black men and women in Chicago, death can seem less like a faraway event and more like a day-to-day certainty.  

I recently attended a stunning lecture led by internist Dr. David Goldberg of Stroger Hospital in Cook County. Here are some of the saddening and shocking facts that Dr. Goldberg shared with the audience:  

· By the age of 64, one out of nine white men will die. In Cook County, one of out two black men will die by that same age.  

· By the age of 64, one out of 11 white women will die. In Cook County, one out of three black women will die by that same age.  

· In other parts of the country, emergency room visits for stabbings and shootings hover at around 1 to 5 percent. Dr. George Harris, medical staff president of the southside's Christ Advocate hospital reports these visits come in his trauma center at a staggering 29 percent.  

What can account for this dramatic disparity in death rates? Why are black people so much more likely to die than their white peers?  

The first reason is lack of health care facilities. We hear a lot about food deserts (a term used to describe poor economic areas which are lacking in grocery stores and healthy fare), but health care deserts are also a very real concern. Some neighborhoods in Chicago are virtual wastelands with nothing to offer its residents. There are no hospitals, no dentists, and no health care education or resources.  

Due to the lack of primary care and prevention, black women in Cook County are much more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. Instead of going to the doctor when they feel a lump or have pain in their breast, they take an aspirin or simply try to ignore the pain and hope it goes away. Cancer that could otherwise be preventable and treatable claims thousands of lives and leaves thousands of kids without a mother.    

The second reason black Chicagoans are more likely to die than white Chicagoans is quite similar to the first. It's the lack of trauma centers. If a man, woman, or child is shot on the South Side, they aren't taken to a nearby trauma center in a speedy and efficient ambulance ride. Because there aren't any nearby trauma centers. Instead, they are taken on an ambulance ride that is nearly 50 percent longer than that of ambulance rides in other neighborhoods (sometimes up to 30 minutes).  

Consider the case of young activist Damian Turner. Three years ago, he was shot nearby the University of Chicago hospital. But he wasn't taken there. Instead he was taken nearly eight miles away to Northwestern University. Many say that the extended time in the ambulance cost him his life. Hence, it is not just gun violence that is to blame for young black death -- it's the lack of resources the community has to treat those wounds efficiently and speedily.  

Another reason for the high death rates among black people in Chicago is school closings and neighborhood upheaval. Citywide, food insecurity (a term used to describe people who are at risk of hunger and who don't always know where their next meal is coming from) is at 18 percent. In Englewood, it's at 40 percent. School closings only increase this number as many children rely on the lunches their school provides. For many children, it might be the only meal they are certain to get each day.  

The same is true of primary care. The school nurse might be the only health care official that these students get to visit, so whether it's a toothache or a stomachache, school closings mean that these kids suddenly have no access to health care. This can all add up to poorer health and depleted well-being. Surrounded by death with little hope or assistance, it's only too easy for these kids to fall through the cracks and become yet another statistic.  

Fortunately, there are things we can do to help, and there many people who are passionate and proactive when it comes to serving these communities and these young people. The Salvation Army's Kroc Corps Community Center is one such organization. From offering free produce to organizing kids' camps to reaching out to teens in crisis, the Kroc Center is trying to reach out to the people that the rest of Chicago seems to have forgotten, and they are doing so in ingenious and inspiring ways. For example, my church and other community partners are developing a midnight summer basketball league with the Kroc Center to help get young people off the streets and to give them a safe and fun place to connect with one another and get some exercise. Play ball at night and developmental programs during the day. It's about more than just throwing a ball around. It's about exposing these young people to life instead of death, and about empowering them and educating them to make positive choices for themselves and their families.    

Visit and/or email to learn more and to volunteer or donate to this worthy cause. Because death should never come before its time, whether you are black or white or whether you call Roseland or Lakeview home. Now that you know the facts, what are you going to do?