Racism is a Public Health Issue

“Racism is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is what we call “race”, that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.” —APHA Past President Camara Jones, MD, PhD, MPH

The news out of Charlottesville this weekend is sickening. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how racism impacts individual and societal health. Experiencing racism is stressful, and stress impacts health. In a 2013 article in the Atlantic, the impact of racial discrimination on health is described thusly:

Discrimination has been shown to increase the risk of stress, depression, the common cold, hypertensioncardiovascular diseasebreast cancer, and mortality. Recently, two journals — The American Journal of Public Health and The Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race — dedicated entire issues to the subject. These collections push us to consider how discrimination becomes what social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger, one of the field’s leaders, terms “embodied inequality.”

Embodied inequality. When you examine health outcomes by race, it is really striking how far-reaching the divide goes, from infant mortality rates, to life expectancy, and disease rates. Then there are the psychological impacts of dealing with racism. Trauma has devastating impacts on physiological health. On top of that, medical professionals have exploited racial minorities for centuries, from slavery to eugenics to medical experiments to discrimination in medical practices. These gross racist, exploitative practices have happened and continue to happen, and I recommend that anyone who is interested in the history of racial discrimination in healthcare read Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington.

I’ve linked a bunch of articles in this post, and it’s all good reading, but I’d urge anyone who is interested in public health to consider anti-racist work as an integral part of improving society-level health outcomes. It is not and should not be the responsibility of Black people, or Latinx or any other racial and ethnic minorities to “fix the racial divide.” Racism is perpetuated by systems and the white people who benefit from them, even when they do not individually work to maintain them. It is all our responsibility to dismantle racism and the toxic effects it has on society.

How can we support anti-racism? There are many organizations that are in need of donations, like the Charlottesville Solidarity Legal Fund, which fights white supremacy in Charlottesville, VA.  We can also have conversations with our friends and family to challenge racist assumptions, attend protests and physically show up for anti-racist events. I think particularly for white people, it is important to listen and educate ourselves as much as possible. Read and watch media created by people of color. When you feel like your own beliefs are being challenged, listen and wait. Really listen. It’s uncomfortable and hard to think about our own biases, but it’s not more uncomfortable or hard than receiving racist treatment and dealing with racist systems every day. Our society is better when everyone has access to the things they need to live healthy and stress-free lives, and it’s essential that we treat racism like the public health issue it is.