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"Black Lives Matter": A Public Health Issue

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The 2014 deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of police in Staten Island, NY, and Ferguson, MO, along with the non-indictment of the officers involved, sparked a national outcry and debate over racial injustices in the legal system, in policing, and in society as a whole. But glaringly absent, from the standpoint of a current Fielding School student and a recent graduate, was a public health perspective in response to these and related events both before and after.

So Mienah Zulfacar Sharif, a current doctoral student in FSPH’s Department of Community Health Sciences, and alumna Jennifer Jee-Lyn García (PhD ’14) decided to address the issue themselves in the American Journal of Public Health. Their August 2015 article “Black Lives Matter: A Commentary on Racism and Public Health,” written under the mentorship of Dr. Chandra Ford, associate professor in FSPH’s Department of Community Health Sciences, calls on the field to recognize the role of racism in undermining public health goals, and to shift the discourse and agenda of public health to more actively engage in racial justice efforts.

“The idea for writing a commentary grew out of our frustration with the lack of a public health framing for these deaths and the limited dialogue about racism more generally,” says García.

In the commentary, Sharif and García express a desire to expand the dialogue beyond the well-publicized incidents of police-related deaths and toward a broader discussion of racism in America and how it affects the health and wellbeing of people of color. “Racism as a social condition is a fundamental cause of health and illness … [and] a social determinant of health that perpetuates and exacerbates the very trends our field works to reverse,” they argue. “Health disparities, discrimination, and residential segregation, which are topics familiar to public health researchers, are byproducts of racism. Yet, these topics are often discussed without explicit acknowledgement of their connection to racism.”

The article goes on to call on public health to use training, research, and community-engaged advocacy to implement an agenda that “recognizes the connection between structural racism and racialized disparities in health.”

“As we argue in the commentary, public health at its core is anti-racism work,” Sharif says. “Racism is pervasive, whether in covert or overt forms, at all levels in society. Avoiding the topic facilitates the perpetuation and exacerbation of the racialized inequities, including but not limited to health disparities, that impede progress on all fronts.”