Woman holding sign that reads "I can't breathe."

Anti-Bias Training is Needed to Counter the Public Health Threat of Systemic Racism

By Megan J. Shen

With the recent confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, many public health issues are seemingly on the line, including the Affordable Care Act, women’s reproductive rights, and access to in vitro fertilization. But Coney Barrett’s lack of awareness of the rampant, systemic racism in the U.S. – an oversight that generally was left out of the flurry of media coverage around her confirmation – is symptomatic of an even more pervasive and dangerous public health threat.

Senator Cory Booker’s questioning of Judge Amy Coney Barrett during her Supreme Court Confirmation hearings revealed her apparent lack of awareness of systemic racism. Booker brought up Coney Barrett’s ruling on a workplace discrimination case.

“This employee claimed that he had been subjected to hostile work environment, and that the supervisor called him the N-word,” Booker said, “But you ruled that the employee had failed to make the case that he had been fired in retaliation for his complaints about race discrimination.”

This instance is one of the clearest demonstrations of the systemic racism prevalent in the U.S. due, in large part, to a lack of anti-racist training and education.

That Judge Coney Barrett could have achieved such success in our country and is now seated in the highest court without an awareness of our country’s pervasive racism points to a system-level failure in U.S. education and professional trainings.

This is all the more concerning given the recent Executive Order issued on September 22, 2020, which banned anti-racist trainings. This order dangerously paints America’s past as one that is not inherently racist. And as such, it is a public health threat.

As a faculty member at a medical college and someone who works in the space of racial justice, health equity, and anti-bias training, I am now seeing the clear danger of the collective lack of awareness of racism to our public health. Failing to acknowledge or address systemic racism leads to a lack of equity in the medical workforce and access to quality healthcare for underserved populations, which are disproportionately represented by people of color. A lack of awareness, and, in some cases, a required halt on these trainings due to the recent executive order, holds the potential to stop clear progress being made towards racial equity. As such, it endangers the health and very lives of Black and Brown Americans.

We are desperately in need of an education about our racist past. The lack of this education has large implications for continued systemic racism in our judicial, educational, and healthcare systems. Black and Brown Americans continue to suffer from inequities across all sectors of society, one of the largest being healthcare. Black Americans die every day due to racism. This death strikes on many levels, including infant death, higher rates of chronic disease, and higher mortality later in life, to name only a few. These higher rates of mortality across the lifespan for Black Americans are almost exclusively linked to systemic racism and inequities in access to healthcare.

Lacking, and certainly banning, anti-bias and anti-racist trainings silences scientists and educators from communicating what they know to be life-saving information for Black and Brown Americans. It prevents them from telling the world that people of color suffer more injustices, and ultimately more death, than their white counterparts. This is a matter of life and death.

The structural racism embedded in our nation can only be ameliorated by those in power working to change the structures that create and sustain these inequities. But initiating this change requires an education about those inequities. It requires those at the top and in positions of power being educated about, and ultimately changing, these deep-rooted racist systems.

Perhaps it does reflect a character flaw that Judge Amy Coney Barrett has not educated herself on the systemic racism prevalent in the judicial system. But that she was allowed to make it this far without being required to learn is a failing of our education and training around anti-bias and anti-racism in the U.S.

Continued failure to require anti-bias and anti-racist trainings, and certainly an executive order banning this type of training, is dangerous. It will ultimately go on to cost countless opportunities, freedoms, and lives among those suffering under this system. We must require anti-bias and anti-racist education in all U.S. educational systems and professional settings. It is our best chance to change our future to be an equitable and healthy one for all Americans.

Megan Shen

Megan J Shen, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine. She is also the Director of the Communications Core at the Cornell Center for Research on End-of-Life Care.

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