Racism Is a Public Health Crisis, Say Cities and Counties

By: - June 15, 2020 12:00 am

Dr. Ala Stanford administers a COVID-19 swab test outside Pinn Memorial Baptist Church in Philadelphia last month. Stanford and other doctors formed the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to offer testing and help address heath disparities in the African American community. Matt Rourke/The Associated Press

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Being black is bad for your health. And pervasive racism is the cause.

That’s the conclusion of multiple public health studies over more than three decades. “We do know that health inequities at their very core are due to racism,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “There’s no doubt about that.”

More recently, research has shown that racial health disparities don’t just affect poor African Americans, but they also cross class lines, Benjamin said. “As a black man, my status, my suit and tie don’t protect me.”

The data is stark: Black women are up to four times more likely to die of pregnancy related complications than white women. Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police as white men. And the average life expectancy of African Americans is four years lower than the rest of the U.S. population.

The bleak statistics have helped convince more than 20 cities and counties and at least three states, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, to declare racism a public health crisis.

Supporters say the designations are meant to spur changes across all sectors of government — including criminal justice, education, health care, housing, transportation, budgets and taxes, economic development and social services — with the goal of shrinking the health gap between African Americans and white Americans.

But the declarations generally do not prescribe specific actions or allocate money, which is why some critics say they don’t go far enough.

The Indianapolis City-County Council this month declared racism a public health crisis. But critics dismissed the action: The Baptist Minister’s Alliance, National Action Network of Indiana and the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis said it “had no true depth,” according to the Indianapolis Star.

Still, public health officials welcome the declarations.

“People say nothing has changed. But things have changed, and it’s important to acknowledge that,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University.

As a former Baltimore Health Commissioner, Wen said, “When I talked about racism as a public health issue, it was a rallying cry, a theme that we would convene our stakeholders around, not only the health department but also our partners, and really start addressing issues with a racial lens.”

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said at a news briefing earlier this month: “We cannot look away from the reality that inaction, indifference and institutional racism has harmed generations of black and brown Wisconsinites.”

In Congress, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, introduced a resolution to declare racism a public health emergency. He said in a news briefing that greater investment in public health and a better understanding of racial health disparities would help reduce the racist health gap.

The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Emergency Physicians also have declared institutional racism an urgent public health issue in statements and vowed to eradicate racism and discrimination in health care.

Attitude Adjustment

Despite substantial evidence, saying that racism causes African American health disparities remained contentious until recently.

“The tide has changed in a pretty short period of time,” Wen said. “I got a lot of raised eyebrows when I first started using that word as a label. You needed to first flag racism as even being related to public health before you could start calling it a public health emergency.”

But when a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, died in Baltimore Police custody in 2015, Wen said she tried to highlight racism as a public health issue.

“I said routinely that poverty was a public health issue, and most people understood. Then I talked about violence as a public health issue and about half of the people I spoke to agreed,” she recalled. “But when I talked about racism as a public health issue, almost no one agreed. It was a very different time five years ago.”

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.