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Dean Ellen J. MacKenzie

May 31, 2020

Racism: A Public Health Crisis

Dear Colleagues,

The video of the horrific and senseless killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last week has already been viewed many millions of times around the nation and the world. Every replay exposes the lethal racism and the searing injustice represented by his words, “I can’t breathe.”

George Floyd’s tragic death brings to mind the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, which did not lead to criminal charges for months, until a recording had been made public. It comes several months after Louisville police killed a 27-year-old emergency medical technician, Breonna Taylor, after bursting into her own apartment, and less than a year after a Fort Worth police officer killed Atatiana Jefferson as she played video games at home. It comes just a few weeks after the five-year anniversary of the homicide of Freddie Gray in the custody of Baltimore police.

Law enforcement violence is a public health issue. It is just one dimension of racism as a present and deadly force in our society. As shocking as these high profile examples are, they represent the tip of the iceberg of persistent racial inequities that constitute a crisis for public health.

African American babies die before their first birthday at more than twice the rate of white newborns.

African American women die at more than twice the rate of other women during pregnancy and childbirth.

African American adults suffer far higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, and other serious chronic illnesses.

The life expectancy of African Americans is 3.5 years shorter than for white Americans.

The roots of these and other mortal disparities run deep to the structural and institutional racism that shapes policing, housing, transportation, education, and health. The COVID-19 pandemic has reexposed the consequences of this legacy. With less secure housing, less stable access to food, greater reliance on crowded public transit, more low-wage work without adequate protection, and less access to health care, many predominantly African American communities are suffering staggering losses. African Americans are nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 compared to others in the U.S. population.

The profound impact of racism on life and death demands a full response from every part of our society, including—and especially—our field of public health. Our own efforts must include becoming aware of and challenging our own biases, more work to document the problem and its consequences, more research into practical solutions, and more effective advocacy to embed these solutions into practices and policies. There are many at the Bloomberg School and beyond who are already working in different ways to bring about needed change, but this responsibility is not theirs alone. It is shared by every one of us.

The School and the Urban Health Institute will pursue new ways to work together to counter racism and improve health equity alongside many partners and advocates across campus, our community, and beyond.

We ask that each of you make a personal commitment to this work. Together, we can create a society free from the oppression and injustice of racism, so we all can breathe.

We recognize that this is a particularly challenging time, and we want you to know that your School community is here for you. We encourage you to stay connected with your colleagues, friends, and family. Students who may be struggling with stress or trauma related to these events should reach out to the Student Assistance Program at jhsap.org. Faculty and staff are encouraged to reach out to the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program at fasap.org.