Public health agencies recognize America’s other epidemic: Racism

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(Photo courtesy Marcus Spiske)

By Alexis Taylor, Special to the AFRO

More than a year into the deadly coronavirus pandemic, health experts have identified another public health crisis facing the American public: racism.

The nation’s leading public health agencies have declared that centuries of racism in America have weakened the mental and physical health of millions, thus impacting the overall health of the nation.

Racism is not just the discrimination against one group based on the color of their skin or their race or ethnicity, but the structural barriers that impact racial and ethnic groups differently to influence where a person lives, where they work, where their children play, and where they gather in community,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director, Rochelle P. Walensky, in a personal commentary shared to the public.

“Over generations, these structural inequities have resulted in stark racial and ethnic health disparities that are severe, far-reaching and unacceptable.” 

Communities of color have been disproportionately devastated by COVID-19 in both infection and mortality rates. The CDC stated that the disparities in COVID-19 data are evidence of a system infected with racism- not the virus itself. 

Nationwide, over 170 city councils, county boards, educational entities, state legislatures, governors and mayors have declared racism a public health crisis, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA). 

Viewers can scroll over an interactive map created by APHA to see documents related to declarations from California to Florida. 

Last year, the County Council of Prince George’s County declared that “institutional racism impacted housing policy, tax policy, and economic opportunities, observed both across the country and within Prince George’s County.”

Historically, Prince George’s County held the largest population of slaves in Maryland prior to abolition. The declaration directly ties today’s racist practices with the fact that many institutions within Prince George’s County were “designed, postured and purposed” on the “horrific ideal of human ownership for profit.” County Council members stated that racism created “significant perpetual hardship” that ultimately leads to “shortened life spans on persons of color.” 

In January, a declaration from Virginia’s General Assembly noted that “many communities of color suffer from increased exposure to environmental hazards, poor air quality,” and “lack of access to safe and affordable opportunities for outdoor recreation.”

The Virginia General Assembly also pointed out that “specifically, African American women are up to four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women” and that “African American men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police as white men.”

In December, the Council members in Washington, D.C. declared that “racism and segregation have exacerbated a health divide resulting in communities of color in the District.” This divide has led to the District’s communities of color “bearing a disproportionate burden of illness and mortality including COVID-19 infection and death, heart disease, diabetes, and maternal and infant mortality.”

According to the CDC is taking a four-pronged approach to address racism and subsequent health disparities. The agency said they are mining solutions from in-depth studies on how racism determines health outcomes and using pandemic funding to expand infrastructure needed to “address disparities related to COVID-19 and other health conditions.”

Within the agency, the CDC is looking to “foster greater diversity and create an inclusive and affirming environment for all,” and the “Racism and Health” web portal will provide accountability measures and “serve as a catalyst for public and scientific discourse around racism and health.”