Being black is bad for your health. And pervasive racism is the cause.
That’s the conclusion of multiple public health studies over more than three decades. “We do know that health inequities at their very core are due to racism,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “There’s no doubt about that.”
More recently, research has shown that racial health disparities don’t just affect poor African Americans, but they also cross class lines, Benjamin said. “As a black man, my status, my suit and tie don’t protect me.”
The data is stark: Black women are up to four times more likely to die of pregnancy related complications than white women. Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police as white men. And the average life expectancy of African Americans is four years lower than the rest of the U.S. population.
The bleak statistics have helped convince more than 20 cities and counties and at least three states, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, to declare racism a public health crisis.
Supporters say the designations are meant to spur changes across all sectors of government—including criminal justice, education, health care, housing, transportation, budgets and taxes, economic development and social services—with the goal of shrinking the health gap between African Americans and white Americans.
But the declarations generally do not prescribe specific actions or allocate money, which is why some critics say they don’t go far enough.
The Indianapolis City-County Council this month declared racism a public health crisis. But critics dismissed the action: The Baptist Minister’s Alliance, National Action Network of Indiana and the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis said it “had no true depth,” according to the Indianapolis Star.
Still, public health officials welcome the declarations.
“People say nothing has changed. But things have changed, and it’s important to acknowledge that,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University.
As a former Baltimore Health Commissioner, Wen said, “When I talked about racism as a public health issue, it was a rallying cry, a theme that we would convene our stakeholders around, not only the health department but also our partners, and really start addressing issues with a racial lens.”
In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said at a news briefing earlier this month: “We cannot look away from the reality that inaction, indifference and institutional racism has harmed generations of black and brown Wisconsinites.”