Remarks from the Director: CDC announces racism is a public health issue. My Initial Reflections

April 8, 2021

CDC director, Rochelle Walensky declared racism a public health problem today, April 8, 2021, which is an historic and notable achievement for the field of public health. Naming racism is the first step toward addressing it. So, I thank Dr. Walensky for taking that important action.

This action was made possible by the efforts and sacrifices of so many people who have been fighting for justice from within the agency and outside of it for decades. We know some of their names, but we will never know all of them. In the opening chapter of Racism: Science & Tools for the Public Health Professional, Bill Jenkins, Vic Schoenbach, and Diane Rowley recall:

At the end of the 1980s, a group of epidemiologists and biostatisticians at the CDC (Bill Jenkins, Helene Gayle, David Allen, Walter Williams, Sonya Hutchins, Diane Rowley, Rick Richards, Alula Hadgu, Cheryl Blackmore prince, and others), with the support of senior statistician Gladys Reynolds, 1987 chair of CDC’s Affirmative action committee, held a series of discussions about how to advance the field. They pledged to pursue and publish research that would focus on “race” or racism in public health and strategized how to marshal organizational support for a focus on health disparities and racism.

In 1991, a number of key historical conferences were organized in Atlanta to address racism and racial health inequities. The American College of Epidemiology (ACE) devoted its 10th Annual Scientific Conference (November 7–8) to the topic, “Morbidity/Mortality Gap: Is it Race or Racism?”

Jenkins et al., In: Racism, APHA Press 2019

Dr. Bill Jenkins penned those memories so passionately, but he did not live to hold the book in his hands. The inequities that we study are not abstractions. We live them. And, we lose lives to them. Despite the delight I feel about all that this moment represents, I am keenly aware that naming racism a public health problem — as so many municipalities are now doing — can move us toward equity. By itself, however, naming racism does not ensure equity. We must also tackle the underlying mechanisms by which white supremacy and structural racism preserve themselves. Otherwise, naming racism will serve as a substitute for actually eradicating it.

I know I speak for many long time racism researchers in welcoming CDC to the terrain of the antiracist. This can be a difficult and isolating place to fight alone. For instance, neither I nor any of the BIPOC racism researchers I know personally has managed to evade the micro-aggressions and institutional racism that so often accompany efforts to challenge the status quo. But the involvement of the CDC offers an opportunity for collective efforts toward equity.

Just months ago, the CDC seemed to be unravelling from the inside as employees of color began stepping forward, sometimes anonymously, to disclose how institutional racism within the CDC had impacted them directly. Today, the CDC director names racism a public health problem raising awareness about the need to build a health equity agenda around it.

In this moment, let us recognize the possibilities and celebrate this milestone. For others have sacrificed deeply over the years in hopes we might all get here. Very soon, we will need to turn to the real work, the hard work this statement requires of us.

In struggle for health equity,

Chandra L. Ford, PhD, MPH, MLIS
Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences
Founding Director, Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health
Jonathan & Karin Fielding School of Public Health
University of California at Los Angeles

The @COVIDRacism Study documents racism, inequity & injustice during the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by UCLA’s @RacialHealthEq & @CDrewU.