Last weekend, I attended a White Coats for Black Lives rally downtown. For those unfamiliar with what White Coats for Black Lives is, it is a national organization of health care professionals dedicated to raising awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement. An important point brought up during the rally that really stuck with me is that often times, we attribute diseases that disproportionately affect Black Americans (i.e. COVID-19) to their race, but we should be changing the rhetoric. It is not race, but racism, that puts them at greater risk. I looked more into this topic and found an excellent article titled “Why Racism, Not Race, is a Risk Factor for Dying of COVID-19” on Scientific American that depicts an interview with Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH. She discusses how health disparities are not rooted in biological differences, but in the impacts of racism that permeate through every aspect of health. The mechanisms by which racism influences health are by exposing Black Americans to occupations in which they are less protected, and when they become exposed, they are more likely to suffer serious complications from the diseases. This is because they are affected by more chronic diseases as a result of living in impoverished neighborhoods with more pollution and food deserts.
Per her interview, “That’s why we have more diseases, not because we don’t want to be healthy. We very much want to be healthy. It’s because of the burdens that racism has put on our bodies…We are less protected because our roles and our lives are less valued—less valued in our job roles, less valued in our intellect and our humanity.”
This is truly something to keep in mind because while race is a non-modifiable risk factor, racism is modifiable. Changing the way we frame these health issues will change the way we approach intervention because racism is a systemic, structural risk factor that certainly can, and must be modified.