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156 years after “Freedom Day,” it’s time to declare racism a public health crisis

On June 19th, 1865, a group of Union soldiers in Galveston, Texas delivered the news that the Civil War was over and with it the abolishment of slavery. “Juneteenth” commemorates this moment in our nation’s history, when the constitutional promise of freedom was recognized for African Americans who were still enslaved. Notably, this was more than two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Now, 156 years later, celebrations of “Freedom Day” cause us to reflect on what it means to be a country that is still not free from the legacy of slavery; to be a country where systemic racism continues to pervade institutions and inform our public policies. The promise of freedom is still an active pursuit for so many.

As Juneteenth took on new relevance last year, we saw several state and local efforts to declare racism a public health crisis in an effort to confront this legacy head-on. These efforts allow us to take collective responsibility in viewing systemic racism for what it is: A crisis that has compromised the lives of generations of Black Americans impacted by the legacy of slavery. Declaring racism a public health crisis positions us to confront racism as we would any other crisis for which we are seeking a solution: by studying its roots, tracking the data and developing science-based interventions that will result in its eradication.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, racial inequities were brought to the forefront, as our country was confronted with disparity data, including Black Americans dying at nearly twice the rate of whites and the gap between Black and white life expectancy going up from four to six years. In addition, during this time, increased awareness about other health related disparities attacking the Black community, like disproportionate infant and maternal morbidity and mortality for Black women, along with higher rates of chronic, environment-related conditions such as diabetes, asthma and violence.

The data we have helps to draw correlation among the social determinants of health and systemic racism. But we need to be more consistent and intentional about the data we collect, how it is analyzed and the public policy designed as a result. Where Black Americans live, learn, work and play deeply impact their quality of life outcomes. Juneteenth is a reminder of both the joy of freedom and our yet unfinished business. We cannot deliver on the constitutional promise of freedom for Black Americans until we get real about how the remnants of slavery are impacting the health and well-being of Black Americans today.

As of May 12, 2021, 208 municipalities and states have declared racism a public health crisis — an important data driven first step that has the potential to open new avenues for data collection and research that can drive resource allocation and strategic action to interrupt and dismantle systemic racism.

For example, economists estimate that over the past 20 years, discrimination against Black Americans has cost our country an estimated $16 trillion. Our agenda also recognizes the costs of societal systemic racism on economic opportunity, such as a growing digital racial gap that will leave 76 percent of Black Americans disqualified or underprepared for 86 percent of jobs in the U.S. by 2045. When it comes to health and well-being, the impact of systemic racism continues — for example, by limiting access to telehealth, and to convenient, healthy food in local communities. Black Americans are at the frontlines of deeply rooted inequities that negatively affect their mental and physical health and directly impact their morbidity, mortality and quality of life.

Just as the news of freedom spread slowly across our country in the 19th century, eradicating the scourge of systemic racism is a journey. But we can accelerate advancement by declaring racism a public health crisis and giving this crisis intentional focus that will allow our nation to drive meaningful change in policy, practice and life outcomes that deliver freedom’s promise.

Tanisha M. Sullivan is CEO Action for Racial Equity and associate general counsel for Sanofi.

Tags Black Americans COVID-19 Freedom Day Health care June 19 Juneteenth Pandemic Public health Racism Tanisha M. Sullivan

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