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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lady justice.

When Health Advice Is Hard to Come by, BIPOC Suffer the Consequences

By Claudia E. Haupt

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the tradeoffs at stake for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) seeking reliable health advice.

While there are legal safeguards to ensure reliable health advice within the confines of the doctor-patient relationship, outside of that relationship, the First Amendment protects bad advice just as much as good advice.

Courts continue to interpret the First Amendment in an expanding, deregulatory manner and the health context is no exception. For example, one novel judicial interpretation challenges previously accepted applications of the police power in furthering public health. In a forthcoming article, “Public Health Originalism and the First Amendment,” my colleague Wendy Parmet and I explore some of the dangers associated with this deregulatory approach.

Overall, the beneficiaries of these recent developments tend to be powerful speakers. The costs have largely fallen on women, as seen for example in NIFLA v. Becerra, and those who lack access to reliable medical advice, who are disproportionately BIPOC. Current First Amendment doctrine thus has the dangerous potential to further exacerbate existing racial disparities in health.

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Empty classroom.

School Discipline is a Public Health Crisis

By Thalia González, Alexis Etow, and Cesar De La Vega

Education is well-accepted as a key social determinant of health. It serves as a strong predictor of chronic disease, social and economic instability, incarceration, and even life expectancy. For example, by age 25, individuals with a high school degree can expect to live 11 to 15 years longer than those without one. Despite such evidence, education policies and practices have not been public health priorities. Too often, policies and practices in schools that create and compound health inequities are narrated and re-narrated as falling outside health law and policy. This is a missed opportunity for collective action to positively impact the future health pathways of children and communities.

In the wake of national protests against racialized police violence and COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, the time has come for the health community — from researchers, to public health organizations, to advocates, to health care professionals — to move from simply affirming that racism is a public health crisis, to actively exposing how structural discrimination in education has fueled disparities and deepened the persistence of health inequities.

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redlined map of Los Angeles.

A Critical Race Perspective on Housing and Health

Image from “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers.

By Courtney Anderson

Only 10-20% of health outcomes are attributed to health care. Social, economic, and environmental factors thus account for the vast majority of population and individual health outcomes. And housing encompasses many of these factors, as it largely determines the built environment and exposure to stressors.

Section 801 of the Fair Housing Act declares, “It is the policy of the United States to provide, within constitutional limitations, for fair housing throughout the United States.” This Act was the culmination of racial justice protests, resistance to discrimination and violence, and other aspects of the civil rights movement. Despite the stated intention of this Act, housing remains unequal across the nation.

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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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Medicine law concept. Gavel and stethoscope on book close up

Addressing Racism through Medical-Legal Partnerships

By Medha D. Makhlouf

Numerous studies have documented that racism is a social determinant of health (SDoH) that negatively impacts Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). As such, racism is one of “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age” that are “mostly responsible for unfair and avoidable differences in health statuses.”

The U.S. health care system was not designed to respond to SDoH, much less to address racial health disparities. In fact, U.S. health care institutions have racist legacies that continue to influence the way they operate today. When health care providers fail to confront racism within and outside their walls, they perpetuate the racial health disparities that have plagued our nation since before its founding.

Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) is a model of collaboration and joint advocacy between lawyers and health care providers who seek to improve social conditions that affect health and well-being. MLPs aim to address SDoH on three levels: direct representation in civil legal matters, institutional change, and systemic advocacy. They typically employ legal interventions to ensure that people’s basic needs are met, such as nutritious food, health care, income, safe and stable housing, and uninterrupted energy and water utilities. Improving access to such resources is an important way of engaging with the work of health equity.

While some MLPs incorporate a racial justice lens in their work, many do not. MLPs are generally more oriented toward addressing the effects of racism as a SDoH, rather than as the cause of poor health. But considering the cross-cutting nature of racism as a SDoH, MLPs can and should address it directly. As Director of the MLP Clinic at Penn State Dickinson Law, whose faculty has resolved to incorporate discussions of racism and inequality in the curriculum, I have begun researching Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a framework to understand how MLPs can build on their core activities to further address racism as a SDoH and make explicit the connections between racism and poor health. This post describes how MLPs can address racism as a SDoH in at least four ways that align with the goals of CRT.

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Man holds up a sign at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC 6/6/2020.

How Social Movements Shape the Law to Address Health Disparities

By Aziza Ahmed

We are facing a health crisis in America. In thinking through the causes of health disparities, a now well-developed body of public health law scholarship focuses in on the central issue of law as a social determinant of health. This scholarship examines the issue of how legal rules can determine health outcomes. Property laws that explicitly or implicitly discriminate against minorities, for example, often result in poor Black communities living in neighborhoods in which they may be more exposed to pollutants, resulting in higher rates of breast cancer or asthma. Or, immigration practices, including ongoing profiling at the border, as well as detention practices, may have mental and physical health impacts.

What is missing from legal scholarship on the social determinants of health is an account of how communities respond to change the legal environments that have the effect of producing poor health outcomes. In other words, how do communities demand a better legal system with regard to health inequality? Here, we must turn to social movements who often drive our national conversation on access to health care by doing the hard work of identifying, naming, and drawing attention to the complexity of issues that people face.

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Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Film negative by photographer Warren K. Leffler, 1963. From the U.S. News & World Report Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Photograph shows a procession of African Americans carrying signs for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003654393/

Structural Racism: The Root Cause of the Social Determinants of Health

By Ruqaiijah Yearby, J.D., M.P.H.

In 1906, W.E.B. DuBois noted that social conditions, not genetics, impacted the health of Blacks, causing racial disparities in mortality rates. In 2010, the federal government formally recognized that social conditions, specifically the social determinants of health (SDOH), were responsible for racial health disparities.

Racial health disparities, estimated to cost the United States $175 billion in lost life years and $135 billion per year in excess health care costs and untapped productivity, persist because of the failure to address their root cause: structural racism.

Structural racism describes the way our systems are structured to produce racial inequalities between whites and racial and ethnic minorities in the SDOH, leading to racial health disparities.

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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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a crowd of people shuffling through a sidewalk

The SSTAR Initiative: A Policy Proposal for a Full, Equitable Recovery from COVID-19

By Sara E. Abiola and Zohn Rosen

Full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. will require new policy that promotes equity and streamlines access to social services while supporting small businesses

Unprecedented job loss due to COVID-19 has led to an economic crisis for families of all backgrounds and income levels.

Current health and social services programs are ill-equipped to handle this need. Moreover, long-standing racial health inequities and the stigma associated with using social services will persist in the absence of significant systems-level change.

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