Racism Is an Urgent Public Health Crisis

Columbia public health experts call for systemic change

Co-authored with Rachel Nation and Robert E Fullilove

By now we have seen the videos, witnessed the final utterance of “I can’t breathe,” and heard the piercing wails of a whole community shedding tears of grief and anger as another Black man became reduced to a hashtag.

This uncoincidentally parallels a recent New York Times opinion, where sociologist Sabrina Strings, PhD, notes that disproportionate Covid-19-related deaths for Black Americans are largely due to racist policies that date back to slavery. The legacy of slavery prevails. Black bodies are continually treated as if they are congenitally diseased and undeserving of care.

This disregard of Black lives is also woven throughout law enforcement. Police violence is the leading cause of death for young Black men ages 25 to 29 in the United States. Black Americans are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, and yet 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed. Even more disturbing is the fact that 99% of the killings by police from 2013–2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime.

The legacy of slavery prevails. Black bodies are continually treated as if they are congenitally diseased and undeserving of care.

As public health researchers and educators, we interpret these alarming statistics as an urgent public health issue. The killing of unarmed Black Americans at the hands of those who are supposed to “protect” Americans carries the weight of long-term harm that touches, or rather, “knees” the back of the whole community.

Psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Fullilove has extensively discussed the long-term harms of police violence that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. These extend beyond death to include sexual, psychological, neglectful, and nonfatal physical violence.

From the 1965 Watts protests to the 1992 L.A. protests to the 2014 Ferguson protest, and most recently, to the Minneapolis protests, deep-rooted conversations surrounding race and policing continue to be superficially engaged — only to reemerge and evolve. It is important to demand answers to questions such as, “Why are Black Americans disproportionately killed by the police force?” or “Why are police officers not held accountable for the violent acts they commit?”

The killings of unarmed Black men and women are not unusual or extraordinary cases. They are an unfortunate reality. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and the many other Black men and women who have lost their lives at the hands of the police are reflective of an existing pattern that dates back to the days of slavery, the Reconstruction era, the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, the era of Jim Crow and that, today, is embodied in U.S. prisons in what Michelle Alexander terms The New Jim Crow.

Black Americans are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, and 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed compared to white people.

The origin of American law enforcement has roots in slave patrols when white volunteers used vigilante tactics to maintain the system of slavery. Members of slave patrols had the power to forcefully enter anyone’s home to locate and return enslaved people to their enslavers, to shut down any uprisings led by enslaved people, and to murder those suspected of violations of plantation rule.

With the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment, Black Codes were created by the former Confederate States as a way to legally place formerly enslaved people into indentured servitude, prevent them from voting, and to control where they lived, traveled, and worked. The Codes gave birth to Jim Crow laws and the creation of segregated public spaces for Blacks and whites.

The enforcement of these laws was left to the police. Black people were brutalized, lynched, and murdered. Not only were the perpetrators not punished when Black men and women were lynched — an event viewed as entertainment for a white audience — but the police force were rarely, if ever, held accountable for this widespread brutality.

It is 2020, 401 years since the first people to be enslaved were brought to this nation, and echoes of this history continue to reverberate. Laws such as stop-and-frisk (a form of racial profiling), improper arrests for minor offenses, and wrongful convictions are painfully reminiscent of slave patrols and the Black Codes. Tragic narratives that are compressed to hashtags like, “Jogging while Black,” or “Wearing a hood while Black” are rapidly circulated via social media and smartphones. Black trauma becomes a spectacle as people share videos and pictures that for many Black people reintroduce personal traumatic experiences with law enforcement. They become a constant reminder of Black un-mattering.

Although arresting a police officer and charging them with murder may seem like a step forward, it is important to note that bringing one person to justice will not disturb the racist edifice that generates these injustices. It is critical that states across the U.S. declare racism as an urgent public health issue. This will allow us collectively to think critically about solutions designed to combat the insidious forms of racial violence.

99% of the killings by police from 2013–2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime.

We begin with understanding the nation’s current agonized struggles to be free of a police force and mass incarceration. Elected officials of each state across the nation must declare racism as an urgent public health crisis.

Currently, about $155 billion of state and local government funding is directed to police enforcement, which is higher than the funding allocated to housing and health agencies combined. It is the responsibility of every individual to do their political homework and collectively demand that local officials invest more in mental health, housing, education, youth development, and living wages so as to stabilize and sustain the wellness of communities. It’s imperative that the community and grassroots organizations are actively involved in the political and moral conversations and that mobilization efforts strive for racial equity and the reconstruction of law enforcement and criminal justice.

Most importantly, we must collectively oppose voting suppression policies and laws, and ensure that everyone’s voices are heard at the voting booth. A revolution able to dismantle the whole racist edifice will depend on our effort to lift our voices and the voices of those who have been, and continue to be, systematically silenced.

Ira Memaj is a public health educator and researcher on reproductive health disparities and mass incarceration at Columbia University Medical Center.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store