Racism is a National Public Health Crisis

“Achieving health equity requires valuing everyone equally with focused and ongoing societal efforts to address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices, and the elimination of health and health care disparities.” Healthy People 2020

Profs Jennifer Jee-Lyn García and Mienah Zulfacar Sharif published “Black Lives Matter: A Commentary on Racism and Public Health” in the 105th volume of the American Journal of Public Health, August 2015

Why the study? Profs García and Sharif show how public health researchers mostly neglect looking at how racism impacts public health, even with all the recent media attention paid to the killing of unarmed Black men by White officers. Prof García and Sharif show, too, that women and trans* people of color are victims of racialized police violence and misconduct. Ultimately, they point out that only “race” is included in public health research rather than “racism,” even though race alone does not impact public health.

Results of the study? Focusing on racism is key to fighting racialized health disparities and should be central to public health research and practice. To make this work, recommendations include (1) race-conscious curricula to frame public health as anti-racist work, (2) more support for a racism-focused research agenda, (3) active engagement with communities of color to learn more about the problems, and (4) become an advocate outside of academia.

Quick summary? Violent, premature deaths of people of color directly oppose the vision of Healthy People 2020, a governmental public health initiative. The authors call on other public health researchers to pay attention to the pervasive role of racism in public health because it is fundamental racial justice work. Ignoring or covering up the impact of racism on racialized health inequality lets it continue. This research follows researchers who focus on the role of poverty in health research by understanding it is a key reason for poor health in communities of color.

(Race is a social construction with no biological basis. Racism is a social system that creates racial group inequity. Racialization is a process where racial categories at the top of the social hierarchy mean and are valued more than those below them.)

Take-aways?

  • In a racially stratified society, White lives are inherently valued over Black lives.
  • A growing body of research shows that racism–not race–is a social determinant of health
  • Blacks have much higher rates of infant mortality, obesity, deaths caused by heart disease and stroke, and an overall shorter life expectancy  in comparison with Whites.
  • Racism in legal, social, and political systems let police officers off the hook for stopping way more people of color than Whites, often without cause, and with greater use of violent force.
  • One in three Black men will be behind bars at some point in their lifetime.
  • The mass incarceration of Blacks is mostly because of institutional policies in our police and judicial systems, which include aggressive enforcement of low-level drug crimes and mandatory harsh sentencing laws.
  • The consequences of mass incarceration include loss of social program eligibility, lack of voting rights, and housing and employment discrimination.

So what?

  • With this knowledge, citizens can reflect on their own responses to race and racism
  • With this knowledge, students can understand how racism and health connect
  • With this knowledge, analysts can be more aware of how the terms race, racism, and racialization function in their work

Jennifer Jee-Lyn García is with the Department of Health Sciences, California State University, Dominguez Hills. Mienah Zulfacar Sharif is with the Department of Community Health Sciences, Fielding School of Public Health, University of California, Los Angeles. Correspondence should be sent to Mienah Zulfacar Sharif, MPH, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Department of Community Health Sciences, 650 Charles E. Young Drive South, 36-071 CHS, Box 951772, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1772 (e-mail: mienah@gmail.com).

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