Racism in the U.S.: Responsibility of the public health sector

Written by Laasya Vallabhaneni, BS candidate in neuroscience and cognitive science at University of Arizona; SPRIGHT Scholar in the 2020 Institute for Public Health Summer Research ProgramPublic and Global Health Abbreviated Track 

Only by acknowledging the presence of racism ingrained in our system can we bring change for minority populations being disproportionately affected. Racism has been entrenched into many institutions across the world and regardless of legal systems set up to protect against the discrimination faced by people of color (POC), they have been unable to fix the implicit bias found in these same institutions. According to the article entitled, “What is Public Health” published by the CDC Foundation, “Public health is concerned with protecting the health of entire populations”, however, the healthcare system has a long way to go before making such claims.

With the present situation of COVID-19, we see that minority groups including non-Hispanic Black and Indigenous populations have the highest rates of hospitalization and infections. Racism is directly responsible for the poor outcomes of health seen in these groups in the U.S. over time, as they are constantly discriminated against by our healthcare system. African Americans have been exploited medically and scientifically in forms such as unethical experimentation and overuse for teaching purposes. A famous example is the Tuskegee study conducted by the U.S. Public Health system, which preyed on African American men and claimed to study syphilis, but actively hid the treatment allowing the disease to run its course, ruining the health of the participating populations.

Although this form of severe abuse is diminished, history has set up the health of these minority populations for generations to come. Institutionalized racism affects health outside the patient room through housing discrimination, educational segregation, mass incarceration, etc.

Environmental racism is a major determinant of health. Factories and landfills are specifically built in communities with a majority of People of Color, exposing these individuals to hazardous chemicals and pollutants. In the U.S., People of Color are 38% more exposed to NO2 gas than white people, leading to asthma, bronchitis, and many other respiratory problems. Other forms of environmental injustice are seen again and again in the U.S, such as the Flint, Michigan water crisis in 2013. Although Flint residents complained about the water towards the beginning of the crisis, government officials brushed it off affecting a majority of the African American population. Flint water contained very dangerous levels of lead which lead to higher risk of heart disease and kidney disease, including issues with growth and development and damaged nervous systems in children. This is a prime case of racism and disregard for low-income populations of People of Color, adversely affecting their health.

Although structural changes are necessary to bring about change in how these populations are treated, it is also the responsibility of those who work in public health system to continuously re-check their hidden biases. Public health professionals make a vow to help their entire populations, which we need to live up to individually and as a community.

This post is part of the Summer Research Program blog series at the Institute for Public Health. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.