Dr. Camara Jones, past-President of the APHA, identified three steps to move beyond public health declarations into actions that actually address racism. The steps Dr. Jones suggests are to: 1. name racism, 2. identify the mechanisms by which racism operates, and 3. build strategy and take action. Part 1 of this series focuses on the first 2 of 3 steps.
Before diving into building a strategy and taking action, it is helpful to consider barriers that can make these first two steps considerably difficult. They can often result in an inability to collectively move beyond making declarations and engaging solely in performative actions. As a society, many of us are still struggling with the first step to acknowledge racism’s existence and harmful impacts today.
Achieving health equity requires valuing all individuals and populations equally, recognizing and rectifying historical injustices, and providing resources according to need.
Dr. Jones observes that “Achieving health equity requires valuing all individuals and populations equally, recognizing and rectifying historical injustices, and providing resources according to need.” She outlines 3 major cultural barriers that can hinder achieving health equity and eliminating disparities that stem from racism:
- Disconnecting the history of racism from its current symptoms
- Endorsing the myth of meritocracy
Western culture is heavily focused on “the individual”. It is normalized to focus on a person’s self-interest rather than that of the collective of society. Both popular and professional culture often encourage competition instead of the need for interdependence. Cultural individualism can dilute impact of current systems until they are virtually invisible, making it easier to believe that inequities are not a symptom of these systems.
Disconnecting the history of racism from its current symptoms
Dr. Jones launched her National Campaign Against Racism as a response to the fact that many are in denial that racism is foundational to our national history. Two common ways this disconnection is practiced are refusing to acknowledge the connection between racism and the inequities that are present today, and believing that the societal advantages that were intentionally codified generations ago are coincidental, or merely a measure of merit and effort.
Endorsing the myth of meritocracy
Meritocracy is the idea that those who work hard will be rewarded for their efforts, and that those who are ahead of others have earned their place based on their own skills and accomplishments. However, this “boot-strap” mentality ignores the effects of racism on Black and Brown communities, and attributes inequities across health and other areas to a lack of individual responsibility.
“Boot-strap” mentality ignores the effects of racism on Black and Brown communities and attributes inequities across health and other areas to a lack of individual responsibility.
In addition, “rewards” given to counterparts of different races who possess the same work ethic or education are often not equal. For instance, research shows college-educated Black women have higher risks of maternal death than white women with only a high school diploma. Where is the merit in that?
If we are to finally eradicate the social ill that is racism, we must address cultural barriers that can dampen our efforts to take a truthful look at our past in order to have a brighter and more equitable future.