Public health leaders speak candidly about racism, health

Distinguished panel joins college for dean’s speaker series

Denise Blough
What We Can Do About Racism’s Role in Health Inequities

On April 14, the College of Public Health welcomed a panel of national, state and local public health leaders as part of Dean Amy Fairchild’s Changing the Conversation: Public Health Thought Leader Series.

The webinar, titled “What We Can Do About Racism’s Role in Health Inequities,” featured Dr. Mary T. Bassett, former New York City health commissioner and professor and director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. She was joined by Alex Jones, president of the Ohio Public Health Association and Assistant Franklin County Health Commissioner; Dr. Teresa Long, former Columbus Health Commissioner; Stephanie McCloud, director of the Ohio Department of Health; and Dr. Mysheika W. Roberts, Columbus Health Commissioner.

The women discussed how — despite unparalleled health advances over the last century — health gaps between Black and white Americans have actually increased in recent years. Among other health measures, rising racial disparities can be seen in infant mortality (the gap is even worse in Columbus), COVID-19 deaths and now COVID-19 vaccinations.

“These really reflect the impact not of many personal choices, but of the enduring effect of the racial hierarchy,” said Bassett, who provided an overview of the history of slavery and systemic racism in America, and of the repercussions of both.

She described how the criminalization of Blackness has persisted since the Civil War through disproportionate police surveillance, mass incarceration and police killings, which have further hindered health outcomes for Black people. She defined racism as a system of racial prejudice backed by power and explained how racism, health and wealth are intricately interconnected. 

Roberts, McCloud, Jones and Long each provided their perspective, and the evening ended with a discussion on reparations as a public health priority, on which Bassett co-authored an editorial in November

The idea behind reparations, Bassett said, is that, after 250 years of labor by enslaved people, “freedom” included zero compensation and insurmountable barriers to wealth accumulation such as Jim Crow laws and redlining that prevented Black people from acquiring homes and made them vulnerable to predatory lending policies.

“All of these explain the wealth gap that we see today — it’s not a problem or failure to work hard or to attempt to pursue education,” Bassett said. “And that’s why it’s important to talk about because there are very clear links between income and health.”

“We’re not going to get away from this until we grasp these divides with both hands.”


About The Ohio State University College of Public Health

The Ohio State University College of Public Health is a leader in educating students, creating new knowledge through research, and improving the livelihoods and well-being of people in Ohio and beyond. The College's divisions include biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health behavior and health promotion, and health services management and policy. It is ranked 29th among all colleges and programs of public health in the nation, and first in Ohio, by U.S. News and World Report. Its specialty programs are also considered among the best in the country. The MHA program is ranked 8th, the biostatistics specialty is ranked 22nd, the epidemiology specialty is ranked 25th and the health policy and management specialty is ranked 17th.