Sign that reads "Racism is a pandemic too."

Editor’s Choice: Important Reads on Race and Health

By Chloe Reichel

Racism was embedded in the founding of the United States and has persisted in virtually all aspects of our society through the present day.

In 2020, structural racism was made especially apparent in the disproportionate toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on communities of color, which can be traced back to the social determinants of health, and in grotesque displays of police violence, such as the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Elijah McClain.

Racism is the public health issue of our time, after having been woefully un- or under-addressed for centuries. The following posts, which were published on Bill of Health this year, highlight some of the most pressing issues to confront, as well as potential ways forward.

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Miami Downtown, FL, USA - MAY 31, 2020: Woman leading a group of demonstrators on road protesting for human rights and against racism.

Understanding the Role of Race in Health: Conclusions from the Symposium

By Craig Konnoth

In my introductory post to this symposium, I suggested that medicine and health tapped into a discourse of power that had the power to either harm or help. Medicine can trigger benefits in the law — what I call “medical civil rights,” where advocates rely on medicine’s language to trigger both formal legal rights and public advantage. At the same time, I acknowledged that black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), are often left behind.

In a midpoint reflection, I theorized the problem through the lens of a double bind. On one hand, medicine erases the needs of BIPOC and the harms they experience — the health harms experienced by frontline medical workers, or caused by school and residential segregation — so that they cannot access medical civil rights. On the other hand, BIPOC are rendered hypervisible in contexts where medicine continues to oppress. They are used in clinical trials and tarred with xenophobia and narratives of genetic difference. What should be done?

Several authors offer solutions. I separate them into three categories: (1) community reform, (2) social and legal reform, and (3) medical reform. Of course, all of these solutions are interrelated. Legal and policy change drives medicine; medical research drives law, society, and policy — and both are driven through community activism and consciousness.

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Protestor holding sign that reads: "we need reform now."

Using Anti-Racist Policy to Promote the Good Governance of Necessities

By Aysha Pamukcu and Angela P. Harris

Multiple crises creating a “wet cement” moment

In the U.S., racism has repeatedly stymied progress toward the good governance of necessities. Anti-racism, therefore, must be at the core of solutions to our present crises.

One of the most powerful applications of anti-racism is through policy. By enacting and enforcing anti-racist policy, we can govern more of life’s necessities as public goods.

Achieving this requires a robust coalition of advocates who are organized, interdisciplinary, and prepared to promote the equitable governance of vital goods. The “civil rights of health” — a partnership of civil rights, public health, and social justice advocates — can help provide the change infrastructure needed for this paradigm shift.

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an ambulance parked at the entrance of an emergency department

The Double Bind of Medicine for Racial Minorities

By Craig Konnoth

Medicine often falls short of helping black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). While many individuals successfully invoke medical framing to offer some assistance to address the serious burdens they face — as I explain in a recent article — such efforts have fallen short in the context of racial justice. BIPOC are either subject to hypervisibility — where their medical trait is made a defining characteristic of their existence — or medical erasure, where their medical needs are left unaddressed and ignored.

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A protester holds a sign with a quote that reads: "Pf all the forms of inequality injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."

Structural Racism, Social Determinants, and the Contested Scope of Public Health Law

By Lindsay F. Wiley

For centuries, public health advocates have understood that our health is shaped by the conditions in which we live and work — conditions public health researchers now refer to as the social determinants of health. Law itself is a social determinant of health. Structural racism and other forms of socioeconomic subordination, which are embedded in our laws and public and private policies, are social determinants of health.

Unfortunately, these statements are not uncontroversial. Commentators have debated whether structural racism and other forms of subordination are social determinants of health, and whether dismantling these forms of subordination is within the legitimate scope of public health law and policy. Critiques run along at least three main lines—semantic, civil libertarian, and progressive.

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Close-up Of Doctor's Hand Measuring Blood Pressure Of Male Patient.

Understanding the Role of Race in Health: A New Digital Symposium

By Craig Konnoth

In the 1980s, a vanguard of critical race theorists debated their contemporaries as to whether law could or should play a role in achieving equity — in particular, racial equity. Scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Williams argued that while legal discourse historically had been used to oppress Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), history had shown that in the law also lay the seeds of empowerment. Conceptualizing BIPOC as persons endowed with legal rights, and as a community subject to heightened legal solicitude because of the historical injustices they have faced, has helped undergird their selfhood, dignity, identity and activism. Law could thus be a discourse of despair — but also one of hope.

Whether or not the years have proved those claims correct as to the law, today, a similar debate unfolds in the context of race, medicine, and health care. Today, medicine and the health care system embody discourses of power that rival the law. Will these discourses inevitably serve to oppress BIPOC — and if not, how can we harness their power to achieve justice? Those are the questions that this symposium seeks to answer.

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Close up of the Lady of Justice statue

The Privatization of Opioid Litigation

By Dan Aaron

As the opioid litigation continues over the shadow of one of our nation’s most pressing public health crises, some criticism has been levied at private lawyers representing the cities, counties, states, and individuals harmed by the crisis. For example, see the following tweet:

Let’s work out tax and healthcare financing policy county by county, with private lawyers taking a 25% cut every time. Judge Polster seems to like this idea.

The critiques are many, but can be summarized: (1) private lawyers are being enriched; (2) private lawyers are setting opioid policy; (3) private lawyers have misaligned incentives; and (4) private lawyers will not support public health.

Arguably, all these arguments bear some truth. However, do they suggest that the opioid litigation is incorrigibly tainted and tort litigation the improper avenue to address mass torts such as the opioid crisis?

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