Stephanie Mencimer rightly forces our attention to a looming public health disaster (“Hiding in Plain Sight,” 6/16). Obesity and inactivity are silent horrors overtaking our communities, one insidious bite after another. The causes are many, the cure undoubtedly complex and long-range. As a student of health policy and politics, I am struck by the ease of mobilizing communities against relatively small (even trivial) risks as long as those risks are involuntarily borne and novel enough to prompt fear. Hence a Superfund site triggers alarm, but one more Burger King opening is just another welcome source of jobs and lunchtime convenience.
Five years of writing and ranting on African-American behavioral risk convinces me of three things: First, white liberals and public health activists will do nothing significant to help our community address the obesity epidemic until we cry out for help loud and clear. No one wants to be branded racist or “sizeist,” and the safe alternative is to remain silent while the diabetes toll climbs ever higher. (Remember that, as it stands today, there really is no grass-roots “politics of obesity” beyond the fat-acceptance movement.) Second, we need to find a way to sever “beauty” from “disease control” in the obesity debate (probably by focusing hard on habits rather than weight per se). Finally, as Mencimer so arrestingly suggests, we must focus on saving youngsters. Kids are, in political and practical terms, the most compelling victims.
Governmental Studies Program
The Brookings Institution