The CDC Just Declared Racism a Public Health Threat—Here’s Why That’s So Important

It directly affects millions of Americans—and, because of that, the entire nation as a whole, according to CDC director Rochelle Walensky.

Racism and its devastating impact on people has been an issue for centuries. And now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is speaking up about the impact of racism on health.

The CDC just declared that racism is a serious threat to public health, specifically addressing the impact it has on mental and physical health. "Racism is a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans," CDC director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said in a statement. "As a result, it affects the health of our entire nation. Racism is not just the discrimination against one group based on the color of their skin or their race or ethnicity, but the structural barriers that impact racial and ethnic groups differently to influence where a person lives, where they work, where their children play, and where they worship and gather in community."

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Dr. Walensky also said that racism has "life-long negative effects on the mental and physical health of individuals in communities of color."

She cited the COVID-19 pandemic as one example, noting that "these painful experiences and the impact of COVID-19 are felt, most severely, in communities of color—communities that have experienced disproportionate case counts and deaths, and where the social impact of the pandemic has been most extreme."

Data published by the CDC last month showed that Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Latinx people are up to 3.1 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and up to 2.4 times more likely to die of the virus.

"The pandemic illuminated inequities that have existed for generations and revealed for all of America a known, but often unaddressed, epidemic impacting public health: racism," Dr. Walensky said.

Plenty of people applauded the move on social media. "Thank you," one wrote, simply. Others pointed out that it's overdue. "With all due respect, what took so long? How will you do this work with authenticity?" one person wrote on Twitter.

What does the CDC mean by calling racism a public health threat?

At its core, racism is a system of structures, policies, practices, and norms that determine opportunities based on the way people look or the color of their skin, the CDC explains. This leads to societal conditions that unfairly advantage some and disadvantage others throughout society.

Racism also poorly affects the mental and physical health of millions, and keeps them from being as healthy as possible. As a result, the CDC says, it impacts the health of the country.

The data show that racial and ethnic minority groups in the US have higher rates of illness and death across a range of health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and heart disease, when compared to their counterparts who are white. The CDC also points out that the life expectancy of non-Hispanic Black Americans is four years lower than that of white Americans.

"To build a healthier America for all, we must confront the systems and policies that have resulted in the generational injustice that has given rise to racial and ethnic health inequities," the CDC says online.

OK, so what happens next?

Dr. Walensky said that the CDC plans to do the following:

  • Continue to study the impact of race on health outcomes, expand the body of evidence on how racism affects health, and propose and implement solutions to address this.
  • Make new and expanded investment in racial and ethnic minority communities and other disproportionately affected communities around the country to address disparities related to COVID-19 and other health conditions.
  • Expand CDC efforts to foster greater diversity and create an inclusive and affirming environment for all.
  • Launch a new web portal called "Racism and Health" that is already live.

"Confronting the impact of racism will not be easy," Dr. Walensky said. "I know that we can do this if we work together. I certainly hope you will lean in and join me."

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