Woman's National Democratic Club

Combating Systemic Racism in Public Health

On April 8, 2021, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, declared racism a serious public health threat. This is a governmental acknowledgement that certain policies and practices are in place for the purpose of denying equal access to rights, privileges, benefits, and services based on race and ethnicity. This acknowledgement is welcomed, but long overdue. The devastating impact of systemic racism has resulted in higher rates of preventable illnesses, disabilities, and deaths in communities of color. It will take sustained and purposeful acts to eliminate the structural barriers that lead to racial and ethnic health disparities. Dr. Walensky has taken on a commitment to “accelerate [CDC’s] work to address racism as a fundamental driver of racial and health inequities in the United States.”

Several bills are pending in the House and Senate that address racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (D-IL) has introduced HR 969, the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021. The Act is a compilation of 12 bills that seek to save lives and end racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health outcomes. Among other things, the bill will: 1) provide funding to community-based organizations that are working to improve maternal health outcomes and promote equity; 2) grow and diversify the perinatal workforce to ensure that every mom in America receives culturally congruent maternity care and support; 3) invest in digital tools like telehealth to improve maternal health outcomes in underserved areas; 4) promote innovative payment models to incentivize high-quality maternity care and continuity of insurance coverage from pregnancy through labor and delivery and up to 1 year postpartum; and 5) invest in community-based initiatives to reduce levels of and exposure to climate change-related risks for moms and babies. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced S 346, the Senate companion bill.

Two additional bills seek to amend the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act of 2021 to provide for public health research and investment into understanding and eliminating structural racism and police violence. The bills are: S 162, introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and HR 666, introduced by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).

Interestingly, Dr. Walensky’s declaration of April 8 carries out two of the provisions of the anti-racism bills: she calls on the CDC to declare racism a public health crisis, and on the agency to contribute to a national global conversation regarding the impacts of racism on the health and well-being of the United States and the world. As part of this effort, the Center has launched a new website, Racism and Health, which will serve as a hub for a public and scientific discourse about racism and health.

The WNDC Racial Equity Task Force is in the initial stages of planning a program to explore the impact of racism on access to quality health care in the US. Stay tuned for more information.

—Rosalyn Coates, Chair, Racial Equity Task Force