2024 Equity Challenge Day 17: Racism is a Public Health Crisis

Although some in this country will acknowledge that racism is foundational in our nation’s history, many in this country are in denial about the continued existence of racism and its profound impact on the health and well-being of the nation.

Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, PhD,

Toward the Science and Practice of Anti-Racism: Launching a National Campaign Against Racism
▶ LISTEN TO DAY 17 – 6:16

Today’s entry was written by the Washtenaw County Health Department (WCHD), one of our Equity Challenge Community Group Partners Organizations. Learn more about the WCHD at the bottom of this entry.

The field of public health is population-based. It seeks to protect and improve the health of people and their communities. Public health envisions a healthy community, wherever you live, where every resident has the opportunity to achieve optimal health and equitable wellbeing. But, even when we account for individual factors such as education, class and income, health inequity still exists.

These health disparities are largely due to racism. The goal of health equity for all can only be achieved if we recognize and call out the harm that racism causes to the health, longevity, and wellbeing of people of color.

In the summer of 2020, the Washtenaw County Board of Health and the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, named racism as a public health crisis, joining the nationwide call to bring attention to the significant influence racism has on the health and wellbeing.

Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, former president of American Public Health Association, defined racism as a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is what we call “race”) that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.

In a 2023 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that Black Americans had over 1.63 million deaths relative to white Americans over 20 years.

In Washtenaw County, the life expectancy for residents is 80.9 years, but for Black/African American residents, the life expectancy is 75.4 years.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a large disparity in COVID-19 death rates by race in Washtenaw County. African American/Black residents were almost twice as likely to die as white residents. By 2022, because of equity strategies implemented by the Health Department and our community partners such as hosting testing and pop-up COVID 19 vaccinations sites in specific communities, the rate of deaths of African American/Black Washtenaw County residents decreased substantially resulting in equal rates by race.

It’s important to recognize the unjust policies, systems and structures in place in our country that disenfranchise and discriminate marginalized groups. These racist systems, such as red-lining and racist property restrictions, lead to entire communities with less access to healthy foods due to food deserts and adequate housing. It can also look like unconscious bias from medical providers impacting the way they treat patients of color, or disproportionate incarceration rates by race.

By naming racism as a public health crisis, we are calling on community leaders to address this structural and inherent system that deprives community members from living to the full extent of their lives. We must recognize and point out racism for what it is and diligently continue to work to dismantle racist systems to achieve optimal health for all. For more information about and opportunities to be involved with the Washtenaw County Health Department, please visit our website or join our mailing list.




Reflect And Share

  1. How does this information about early childhood and the cost of care compare with your own experiences as a parent or caregiver? If you are not a parent or caregiver, what does today’s information mean to you as a community member?
  2. When you think about the racialized impacts of racism, poverty, and trauma, what comes up for you? What haven’t you considered previously?
  3. What will you shift based on what you’ve learned today?


Start the conversation. Send the tweet. Share your story. Make the Facebook post. Sharing what you learn and experience with your family, friends, and co-workers is the first step toward allyship.

Join thousands in conversation by using hashtag #RiseToTheChallenge.