Addressing Racism as a Public Health Crisis
In a famous sermon at Riverside Church in 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called on us to not only respond like the Good Samaritan did, with compassion for the suffering we encounter, but to ask why the road to Jericho was so dangerous to begin with for this poor traveler. Why is it, that a person is left for dead on the side of the road and their only hope is left up to the kindness of one person, rather than on a society that sustains safety for all?
Racism and white supremacy have been longstanding, and present, dangers on this proverbial road to Jericho. The past year and a half have further exemplified how this metaphor is an all too painful reality. Caused by racist policies and power, People of African Descent, Indigenous Peoples, and other People of Color have poorer health outcomes and lower life expectancy at disproportionate rates—and from preventable causes. Higher COVID-19 infection and mortality rates and multiple forms of state sanctioned violence are but a few reasons why so many are declaring racism as a public health crisis, including cities, counties, and states, the director of the CDC, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Doing so is more than just nice words on a page. It is a way to get health equity into policy and to use it as a benchmark for those polices and policymakers.
Because racism is present in every system in our society and because every aspect of our daily lives can impact health (also known as social determinants of health), the magnitude of all that needs to change to achieve health equity can be overwhelming. However, responding to racism through the framework of public health offers a systems-level approach to a systems-level problem. It fights poverty, not the poor; the racist policies and social conditions related to drug use, not the people who use them; the criminal legal system, not the incarcerated. It refuses to be part of a narrative the blames People of African Descent for having higher rates of COVID-19, and instead uncovers the unjust circumstances that made this so. It also refuses to accept an answer that stops at a list of “underlying medical conditions” and, again, asks why this is the case. Moreover, it understands direct service, research, education, and policy to coexist within the same ecosystem, and thus the approach invites us to find our own unique role to play as we build the City of God together.
Though racism’s impact on health and well-being is certainly not news to those working in the public health and racial justice spheres, the outcry from the events of this past year have brought much needed attention to this crisis. Both the Council for Health and Human Services Ministries (CHHSM) and the Council on Racial and Ethnic Ministries (COREM) felt strongly about using the upcoming General Synod as a crucial opportunity to engage the church on declaring—and responding to—racism as a public health crisis. General Synod resolutions invite us to collectively listen for how God is speaking to us in the moment, but they also call us to be accountable to what we heard thereafter.
The resolution calls on the church to go into a deeper examination of this crisis and of itself, to identify opportunities to collaborate, and to advocate for policy changes. Two ways folks can take action right now are to register for CHHSM’s free online course Reason to Have Hope: A Public Health Response to Racism, which provides education as well as discernment tools for your next steps, and to take action to urge Congress to support the Anti-racism in Public Health Act.
As people of faith, we know how Christ reveals to us that violence does not have the final say, and that the way forward is through healing that is justice—through restoring right relationships with humanity and all creation. So, let us recommit ourselves to the call of the beloved community, where barriers to wellbeing are broken down and systems are reimagined to make it so.
Rev. Elyse Berry, DMin, Associate for Advocacy and Leadership Development The Council for Health & Human Service Ministries, UCC