Racism is a Public Health Crisis

June 2, 2020

We, along with many of you, are grappling with our pain and sadness at the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the innumerable other Black individuals whose names did not make national headlines. They have joined the list of countless Black lives lost at the hands of the institutions meant to protect us. A system of inequity stemming from racism at every level—individual, institutional, systemic—is killing people of color, especially Black Americans at alarming rates.

The COVID-19 pandemic and police brutality have both taken the lives of Black people at disproportionate and unjust rates; an inequity that stems from deeply rooted structural racism at the heart of so many of our governmental institutions and systems. COVID-19 has taken the lives of 1 out of every 2,000 Black Americans, a rate nearly 2.5 times higher than White Americans. One out of every 1,000 Black men and boys are killed by police, a rate more than 2.5 times higher than White men.

COVID-19 disparities and police violence are laying bare what we, in public health, already knew to be true: racism is a public health crisis. The American Public Health Association (APHA) has declared racism a public health crisis. This week, Ohio representatives introduced a state resolution to declare racism a public health crisis.

Racist policies and practices drive inequities in nearly every measure of health status that we have. Our former Alliance Chair and colleague Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public health, recently stated:

We know that black Americans fare worse than other groups on virtually every measure of health status and it has become all too common to blame this on individual behaviors when in fact the science is clear: The root cause of health inequities is racism and discrimination and how it limits access to the very opportunities and resources each of us need for optimal health and well-being.

Research definitively concludes that racism is literally making Black Americans sick. Racism and discrimination across our systems and institutions, from the workplace, to schools, to childbirth, lead to toxic stress and weathering. The chronic stressors of discrimination are shown to biologically age people faster. But the impact of racism on Black bodies starts even before birth; Black women are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy than white women and in LA County, Black infants die at a rate nearly 3 times as high as their white counterparts. Compounding these outcomes are countless stories and data that demonstrate Black people’s pain and symptoms are not always taken seriously in healthcare settings.

In public health, we look at ways to prevent disease and death as we work towards building healthier, more resilient communities. At the Alliance, we believe dismantling racism and advancing equity is done by addressing the root causes driving health inequities, through education, policy and systems change, and using data to direct investments into communities most impacted by inequities.

The solution to bring justice to Black communities must be intersectional, and it must begin with dismantling racism across institutions and sectors. Just like we have a Health in All Policies approach in California, we should also have a policy calling for us to systematically dismantle racism in all our institutions.

There is no “going back to normal” when we know normal was not working for so many members of our communities.

In order to move forward, we must listen to the communities that have been most impacted by centuries of systemic racism.  We must work in partnership to reimagine what an approach to undoing racism looks like in our policies and across all our institutions from criminal justice, to education, to public health. Only through co-creation of solutions with community, and intentional dismantling of systemic racism, can we as a nation heal these deep wounds, and build healthy, safe, resilient and just communities for all. Only then, can we finally fulfill the promise of our democracy, that all people are created equal with unalienable rights—Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness.

In Solidarity,

The Public Health Alliance of Southern California Team