White Americans can expect to live longer than their black counterparts–that's been the case since the beginning of the 19th century. But the gap between them has narrowed in the last 15 years, The New York Times reports, to the smallest ever: from a 7 year gap in 1990 to a 3.4 year difference in 2014.
The life expectancy for whites on average was 79 years, and for black Americans it was 75.6 years. As the newspaper reports, that's partly because there's been a 40% decline in the number of black people dying in homicides (compared to a 28% decline for white people).
But this narrowing gap could also be largely attributed to the opioid epidemic that's taken hold in recent years—white men and women are dying at a much higher rate from prescription pain killer and heroin overdoses. The Centers for Disease Control say the number of Americans overall dying from just prescription opioids like Oxycontin quadrupled between 1999 and 2014, and that white and Native Americans died more frequently than black or hispanic Americans. This graphic from Quartz gives us a pretty good sense of the percentage change for white men and women in recent years (though it focuses specifically on people aged 50–54):
The Times report suggests that improvements in HIV, cancer, and suicide rates among black people have all contributed to an overall better life expectancy over the last 15 years.
But those indicators–except for the suicide rate–have improved for everyone across the board. And it's worth keeping in mind that the health and crime disparities facing black Americans are still severe. Nate Silver pointed out after the Charleston church shooting last June that black Americans are still eight times more likely to be killed in a homicide than white Americans:
From 2010 through 2012, the annual rate of homicide deaths among non-Hispanic white Americans was 2.5 per 100,000 persons, meaning that about one in every 40,000 white Americans is a homicide victim each year. By comparison, the rate of homicide deaths among non-Hispanic black Americans is 19.4 per 100,000 persons, or about 1 in 5,000 people per year.
And one report from the National Center for Health Statistics last year (also referenced in the Times article), found that the biggest contributors to that continuing discrepancy in how long black Americans can expect to live are heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and homicide.
Those were among the major causes of death for all Americans in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but in most of those categories, black people are still disproportionately affected. Black Americans are twice as likely as white people to die of diabetes, the Department of Health and Human Services says, and they're at least 30% more likely to die of heart disease.
So while the narrowing of the mortality gap between black and white America is a marker of some progress, it is also a result of the catastrophic effects of the opioid epidemic, and doesn't mean that black people don't still suffer from far worse health overall than their white counterparts. And this news shouldn't shift too much focus away from the fact that black Americans can still expect to die younger.
“We have had this peculiar indifference to this unprecedented loss of black lives on a massive scale for a very long time,” David R. Williams, a professor of African-American studies and public health at Harvard, told the Times. “That to me is the big story.”