April 6, 2021

Racism is a Public Health Crisis

Written by Lynn Luu

With the 2021 Stand Against Racism event coming up on April 22, we wanted to introduce this year’s topic: Addressing Racism as a Public Health Crisis.

The global impact the COVID-19 pandemic has empowered community organizations to frame racism as a public health crisis. It is important to consider the power of words when it comes to discussing racism and public health, since it is more accurate to consider racism a crisis rather than an issue. It also meets the criteria that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and experts from Boston University require in order for something to be considered a public health problem. Since there is no epidemiological definition for a public health crisis, we must consider criteria from other sources.

From the CDC, racism meets the four criteria required for a public health problem:

  1. It places an increasingly large burden on society
  2. It impacts certain parts of the population more than others
  3. There is evidence that preventative strategies could help
  4. These preventative strategies are not in place yet

Additionally the Boston University School of Public Health suggested a definition based on three qualifiers: the problem must affect large numbers of people; the problem must threaten health over the long-term; and the problem must require the adoption of large-scale solutions. Let’s explore each in a little more detail.

1) The problem must affect large numbers of people. Through discriminatory housing, land use and transportation policies, unfair school systems, unjust labor laws, racial profiling, and other discriminatory practices by the legal system, systemic racial injustices have negatively created racially segregated areas of concentrated poverty that disproportionately impact people of color and low-income families.

2) The problem must threaten health over the long-term. Racial injustice by laws, policies, and practices have reinforced and perpetuated racial and socioeconomic segregation, which have systematically denied equal opportunity to people of color. These injustices have threatened the health of Black and other communities of color since the 18th century (American Journal of Public Health).

3) The problem must require the adoption of large-scale solutions. Institutionalized racism runs deep in our society. Systemic racial injustices are rooted in policies, regulations, and laws at the local, state, and federal level, which necessitates large-scale solutions.

For people of color, systemic racism impacts access to safe and affordable housing, healthcare, education, and employment. Federal and state policies lead to health inequities and these social determinants of health are key drivers in perpetuating and systematizing discrimination based on race.

Factors like this can affect public health directly and indirectly. For example, due to housing situations, aging pipes that are consistently overlooked and not maintained are in predominantly Black neighborhoods resulted in lead poisoning from the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Also, during the COVID-19 pandemic, communities of color are affected with the virus at disproportionately high rates due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities.

It is vital to consider racism as a public health crisis and to educate others on how they can help stand in solidarity with communities of color to defend the right to political and social freedoms and equality.

Stay tuned for more posts during our educational series to learn more about why racism is a public health crisis!

If you have…

5 Minutes


10 Minutes


20 Minutes

and and
Read this article
from Cornell University on racism as a public health crisis.
and Watch this TED Talk
from Dr. Nwando Olayiwola on the connection of racism and place-ism in medicine.
and Listen to this podcast
from NPR Code Switch that highlights how health inequity disproportionately affects communities of color.

Stand Against Racism 2021: Addressing Racism as a Public Health Crisis

Stand Against Racism will be held on April 22nd from 5:30pm – 7:00pm. To learn more and register, visit ywcaspokane.org/sar2021.

Register Today!

About Lynn Luu

I’m a third year pharmacy student at Washington State University. I am also a member of YWCA Spokane’s Racial and Social Justice Committee and I’m passionate about educating others about civic education and racial justice.

By: Rachel Dannen

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