Systemic Racism Is a Public Health Crisis Too

People across the country are protesting police violence and systemic racism, demanding justice for George Floyd and many other Black people who have been murdered with impunity.

These protests are happening in the middle of a pandemic that has already killed more than 108,000 people in the United States in just a few months, with Black people disproportionately represented among them. It is a tragedy that people have to risk their lives—in multiple ways—to fight for justice, to be treated with dignity, and to demand that Black lives matter. It is a testament to the horrific urgency of the situation.

SELF magazine is a health and wellness brand, and our mission is to help people take care of themselves and their communities. We’ve sounded the alarm about the coronavirus pandemic from the beginning; as a health editor, I’m certainly concerned that these protests will contribute to an increase in transmission and spread of this deadly virus, particularly among the Black community that has already been hit so hard by it.

But another thing I know as a health editor is that systemic racism is also a public health crisis. And that Black Lives Matter is a matter of public health, and of life and death.

Police brutality—the catalyst of these protests—is one example. In 2015 the Washington Post began to track every reported instance of an on-duty police officer shooting and killing a civilian in the United States. Their data found that the rate at which Black Americans are shot and killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate of white Americans—in 2019 that meant 30 deaths per 1 million Black Americans and 12 deaths per 1 million white Americans. And an article in the journal PNAS in 2019 found that about 1 in 1,000 Black American men will die at the hands of police in their lifetime. For white men, it’s about 1 in 2,500.

And then there’s the fact that police violence against Black people is just one symptom of a much larger cultural sickness that terrorizes Black lives and communities, and has done for centuries. There is an overwhelming and shameful amount of evidence of racism in the American criminal justice system—Black people are pulled over while driving at rates higher than white people and are more likely to be searched once they’re pulled over. Black people are arrested, charged, and convicted for drug crimes at higher rates than white people, in spite of the fact that both races use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates. Black people are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate as white people.

The impact that this unequal harassment, criminalization, and incarceration can have on Black people and Black communities is far-ranging, from unemployment to poverty to trauma. All of which can have drastic consequences for health and well-being.

As for health, Black people contend with disproportionately high death rates for chronic health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and most cancers. Black women die from pregnancy and childbirth at three to four times the rate of white women. Black children are more than twice as likely to have asthma as white children. These racial health disparities have myriad causes, such as lack of health insurance, failures of the medical system, inadequate access to care, and more. Systemic racism is at the root of many of those causes.

And these are just a handful of many examples of how systemic racism is harmful to Black people’s health, lives, and communities. So, yes, coronavirus is an ongoing public health crisis. Systemic racism is too. That’s why we all must do what we can to end it, as soon as possible.

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