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The statistics are sobering and clear: Across the U.S., obesity, cancer and a slew of other health problems hit African-Americans harder than whites, ultimately cutting short millions of lives.

Fueling the cycle of disparity almost assuredly are factors dating to the founding of the nation itself: slavery, racism and discrimination that have led to segregation, creating communities that are separate and unequal in nearly every aspect of society that feeds into health, from poverty and education to housing and public safety.

“Residential segregation is as American as apple pie,” says David Williams, a public health and African-American studies professor at Harvard University. “It has these pervasive negative effects of producing social inequality and putting caps on the achievements and opportunities of African-American communities. … Virtually everything that drives health and opportunities to be healthy in American life is determined by place.”

An analysis of U.S. News Healthiest Communities data – used to assess the well-being of nearly 3,000 counties nationwide, and consisting of dozens of metrics that extend beyond insurance coverage and doctors’ visits to social determinants of health such as income, food accessibility and natural environment – reinforces this disturbing conclusion, as communities with larger shares of black residents tend to score and rank lower than those with larger shares of white residents.

Yet there are signs of progress and hope. Of 682 counties with a black population share above the 13 percent national average, 26 land among the top 500 Healthiest Communities overall. Among them are four Georgia counties – Cobb, Columbia, Fayette and Paulding – featuring common threads that have helped propel them into the upper tier.

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