Very often numbers help tell a story. Encouragingly, if you’re an African American living in 2015 many of those numbers paint an improving picture.

In 1970 there were only 1,469 black elected officials; today there are over 10,000. In 1966 the Black poverty rate was 41.8%. Today that figure is down by nearly half. In 1964 only 365,000 black Americans held a four year undergraduate degree. A half century later and that number stands at 2.6 million, a 612 percent increase.

No doubt, these are important numbers to champion. But as we celebrate the 45th annual Black History Month this February (39 if you’re counting from the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 when congress officially recognized the observance) there are plenty of numbers regarding a host of issues that suggest far more improvement is needed.

One of those issues concerns African Americans and their oral health. Studies repeatedly show that African Americans do not visit the dentist as frequently as their white counterparts and for those that do go, often their level of treatment is inferior. Reasons for the disparity hinge less along overtly racist attitudes and more on economic differences. According to a Columbia University study, 75% of adults surveyed had at least some dental insurance coverage. But of those respondents, 50% obtained that coverage through Medicaid versus 21% who had dental coverage from private insurance carriers. Of the 25% who had no insurance, the high cost of care was most often cited as the reason for not visiting the dentist.

Something to Smile About

But there’s also good news. Another study published in the journal Pediatrics found that black and white children visit the dentist at about the same rates and what was once a wide racial gap is now statistically insignificant.  Considering the degree to which oral health is increasingly correlated to a person’s overall health, this changing trend is one to applaud. In the mid 1960s about 60% of African American children had never been to the dentist versus 30% for white children. Today about 22% of white and black children in the U.S. haven’t visited the dentist in the last year. Eleven percent has never gone.

While African American children cavity rates remain higher than whites (possibly linked to increased poverty rates and limited access to healthier, low-sugar foods) clearly the narrowing dental divide is a welcome sign. The question is, what else can dentists do to help keep these trends moving in the right direction?

As we conclude our recognition of Black History Month this weekend, it’s important to remember that the month-long holiday isn’t just about celebrating the past, but about transforming the present, making for a better tomorrow. Dentists have long held positions of respect and authority in their communities. This February (and in all months) let’s strive to attract, retain and engage a new generation of African Americans young and old alike and encourage them to visit the dentist.

For too many African Americans, the American dream of college education, vibrant careers, and home ownership remains at best an elusive vision and at worst, a cruel tease. But a healthy mouth and vigorous smile can go a long way in boosting self esteem and professional confidence, opening career doors that may have otherwise been shut. African American oral health remains a black spot on the dental profession. But with dedicated outreach, effective marketing and flexible payment plans, that blemish can be eliminated.