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Racism, felt throughout the entire lifetime for Black men and women, has a new identity: a chronic disease. Once considered a societal issue, racism is now recognized as a physical and mental health concern. It’s one that must be addressed and treated in order to break down the system that encourages it.

The Baylor College of Medicine, near Dallas, has defined racism as a chronic disease, one that breaks down the body and the soul of Black people in America, struggling to live in a racist society. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the nation’s largest consortium of medical and healthcare professionals for children and adolescents, agrees. In 2019, the AAP released a statement noting that “racism has a profound impact on the health status of children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.” 

The Harvard School of Public Health goes even further, calling racism a public health crisis, and recognizing the 50 other cities and 3 states have addressed racism as such. In fact, Representative Ayanna Presley, part of The Squad of elected officials with progressive views on everything from gentrification to public school, has co-authored an anti-racism bill. It’s aimed at supporting Black residents in the United States. 

Anti-racism bill to address public health crisis

Flanked by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), and Representative Barbara Lee (D-California), the powerhouse of women in politics have created the Anti-racism in Public Health Act of 2020, aimed at remedying specific health aspects of racism across the country. The Bill directs the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to create a “National Center for Anti-Racism” organization, along with “Creating a Law Enforcement Violence Prevention Program within the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. 

The bill, endorsed by such organizations as Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health at UCLA; the NAACP; the Poverty and Race Action Council; and UCLA’s COVID-19 Task Force on Racism and Equity, was introduced to the Senate in September 2020.  Since the creation of the bill, co-sponsored by four Senate Democrats, it has been referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee.

Additionally, physicians and healthcare providers across the country have taken steps to address this particular public health crisis. For instance, they’ve called for providers to engage in cultural sensitivity programs. Moreover, they’ve called to recognize the long-term effects of systemic racism. The American Hospital Association has created a designation for “Culturally Competent Health Care Organizations,” with such steps as providing inclusive linguistic care, reporting health care outcome discrepancies by race, and involving the greater community in these steps. Over 1600 health care organizations have pledged to join the fight against racial inequity in health care

Culturally sensitive healthcare

Yet, these steps do not address the racism dealt to Black families experiencing a lack of culturally sensitive care. This is a serious concern given the propensity for diabetes, poor maternal health outcomes, and COVID-related deaths among BIPOC people in the United States. Currently the National Association for Mental Illness provides tip for finding culturally sensitive health care.  Indeed, several health care organizations have cultural sensitivity programs aimed at helping physicians recognize and understand racial health inequities, and many public health programs are reaching out to students from minority populations to encourage Black students to enter health care as a profession.

It’s a good start, but a program which will not produce fruit of its labors for at least a decade. Meanwhile, healthcare providers need to recognize the distinct needs of Black families today. According to Latoya Smith, a RN in Tulsa, “It is past time that the devastating effects of racism in healthcare are finally being acknowledged. These effects are far reaching for both patients and healthcare workers of color. I am glad we are moving towards a space where Black patients will truly receive the equal and excellent healthcare we deserve.”

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...