I grew up hearing that America is the land of opportunity, and that anyone could make it here with enough hard work. Anyone? In the rural, mostly-White town of my childhood, I never learned about how redlining or the exclusionary GI Bill prevented Black people from gaining wealth through affordable housing. Or about how Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools and abandon their “inferior” way of life. These stories were not in my history books or conversations.
Throughout my career in public health, I began to learn the things I hadn’t as a child. A particularly powerful turning point was a racial equity workshop that helped me recognize how being born White meant I had experienced significant advantages as a member of the group that most systems and policies were designed to benefit. Over time, it has become crystal-clear to me that not everyone has a fair and equal chance to thrive.
Alongside my team at Healthy Places by Design, we have worked in 42 states over the past 18 years. We have witnessed the grave health, social, and economic disparities that exist in our nation, made all the more transparent by COVID-19 and the most recent instances of violence against people of color. We have also witnessed the power people have to reshape their communities to improve health and wellbeing. Working with coalitions in urban, suburban, and rural places nationwide, we have seen community change makers collaborate to re-design policies and systems, learn about each other’s experiences, and come to terms with sometimes-painful histories through racial equity trainings like the ones that had such an impact on me. 1
Our team and advisors recently discussed four possible futures that may unfold depending on the intersections of two axes—how severe the impact of the COVID-19 crisis will be, and what level of social cooperation will prevail—and all of them indicated that health, social, and economic inequities will likely increase. Although we can’t predict the future, one thing is certain: our country can no longer ignore that racism is a main driver of these inequities.
Dismantling the systemic racism that exists in organizations, institutions, and governments requires intentional work, and the willingness to do so is growing. Race Forward notes that nine of out 10 government employees agree that it is important to examine and discuss the impacts of race, noting that, “The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that racial discrimination is a major problem in this country.” 2
That’s why it is so appalling that President Trump and his administration recently instructed federal agencies to end trainings on critical race theory and White privilege, calling them divisive and anti-American. Anti-racism is anti-American? What? In last night’s first presidential debate, Trump even refused to denounce White supremacy when directly asked.
During this election season, so much is at stake. While we continue to build personal and organizational capacity to create equitable healthy communities, elected officials are making decisions right now that will impact us for decades. Yet, what government does is up to us—who we vote for, what we demand from them, and how we hold them accountable. At the end of the day, racism and its impact on community health is a political issue. It is a literal matter of policy and institutional function.
Will you cast your vote to dismantle racism and rebuild more equitable and healthy communities? And will you commit, over the next month, to convincing as many people as you can to do the same?