Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Biden, has stated a fact that data has shown for years: Racism is plaguing the health of American citizens.
Referencing the clear way that COVID-19 has disproportionately struck communities of color, and how pre-existing challenges to lives and livelihoods impact racial and ethnic groups differently, Dr. Walensky said, “Racism is a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans.”
The director’s statement is a full 180-degree pivot from the preceding administration, which chronically denied that systemic racism exists at all. Dr. Walensky’s statement was not a revelation, however — the evidence verifying it has long been in plain view.
But while some may take that statement to mean that biological differences affect health status, racism really impacts access to and quality of care that patients receive. As Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, an epidemiologist formerly of the CDC and now with Morehouse College and Emory University, notes, "There are differences in health outcomes by so-called race across the country that have been documented for decades.”
Why does Jones say “so-called race?” As a doctor, she is referencing what science proves: that humans are not genetically very different. Race, she said, is merely, "the social interpretation of how we look."
And as for health outcomes:
"We know enough now to know that they are not based on our genes," she said, adding it's also "not in our cultures." And yet, she noted, people of color are "overrepresented in poverty." Less wealth, more debilitating jobs and poor health care and diet can lead, in turn, to poor health.
In other words, the devastating global pandemic peeled back the curtain on a longstanding, pre-existing problem — opportunities for adequate health care are not equal.
Dr. Walensky declaring racism to be a public health threat is a significant move, one that could possibly open the door to change. Speaking with NPR, Jones said that investing in the "root causes" of health outcomes, such as poor housing, could lay the groundwork for uprooting public health disparities and establish a new, equitable foundation in communities of color.