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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More