Racism as a public health crisis

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Photo: Huntsville, AL, USA. (cc) Cameron Cox on Unsplash

Excerpt from the article How to address racism like the public health crisis it is | For more information (in English), please consult the following link.

Health encompasses mental, social, economic, and educational success and stability—all of which are eroded by structural racism. If US institutions want to combat racism like the public health issue it is, they need to address not its symptoms, but its causes: the centuries-old systems that oppress people of color.

The medical community has long acknowledged the ways that racism harms health. But the problem has gone by a different name: social determinants of health. The US Department of Health and Human Services has a program called Healthy People 2020 that sets out to “create social and physical environments that promote good health for all” in the next decade, acknowledging that access to economic opportunities, educational resources, and environmental safety have clear impacts on health.

“Although we have never been more attentive to such concepts as the social determinants of health and health equity, our analysis is ironically myopic,” wrote Mary Bassett, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene now at Harvard University, in 2017. “We must explicitly and unapologetically name racism as we protect and promote health.”

Some parts of the US are doing so. The state of Ohio and several other smaller municipalities have moved to declare racism as a public health crisis, with the intent of making it an issue more capable of receiving funding to combat it.

Putting the name to it is one step. The harder part is determining what funding efforts could have the most impact. Some municipalities might prioritize police reform, in an attempt to stem the most visible, violent manifestations of racism. But “police brutality…is an expression of racism as part of a system,” says Abraham Salinas-Miranda, a physician and professor of public health at the University of South Florida. 

In their fight against slums, King and his supporters found ways to address some of the social determinants that were ultimately harming the health of those communities. That’s how public health campaigns against racism can function today, too. 

They can try to address racism before it happens, says Salinas-Miranda, by teaching children to celebrate diversity. Then when it happens, by listening to those in communities affected by racism and providing them the resources they need. And finally, by working to heal the trauma caused by years of living in a racist society.