Merkley, Colleagues Announce Legislation to Confront the Public Health Impacts of Structural Racism

WASHINGTON—United States Senator Jeff Merkley today announced a bicameral bill to confront the public health impacts of structural racism through two bold new programs within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) are all cosponsors of the Senate bill. The House version of the bill will be led by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to ignore how centuries of structural racism have created deep disparities in health outcomes for Black and Brown communities: Black and Brown people are nearly three times more likely than white people to contract COVID-19 and one to two times more likely to die from the disease. People of color are also disproportionately affected by chronic health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, hepatitis, and hypertension; infant mortality; maternal mortality and morbidity; and police brutality—and also less likely to be insured and have access to health care providers. 

The federal government’s failure to adequately collect race and ethnicity data on COVID-19 testing, hospitalization, and deaths has also demonstrated why comprehensive research is needed to study the health impacts of structural racism and to develop race-conscious public health approaches and reverse disparities that have plagued our nation for too long. 

The Anti-Racism in Public Health Act would help expand research and investment into the public health impacts of structural racism, as well as to require the federal government to begin actively developing anti-racist health policy.

“Everyone deserves affordable, quality health care, but it’s not enough to just work for better health care for all-we need to also acknowledge and directly address the unacceptable racist disparities in health care,” said Senator Merkley. “The coronavirus has put those inequities on full display, and has further emphasized that living in a racist society is a pre-existing condition for too many people of color. Black and Brown Americans get less quality care, have worse health outcomes regardless of their incomes or other factors, and are regularly sicker because of systemic racism that has long shaped society and public health. It’s time to pass immediate reform to change that.”

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Create a “National Center for Anti-Racism” at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to declare racism as the public health crisis that it is and further develop the research base and knowledge in the science and practice of anti-racism. The Center would undertake such activities as: 
    • Conducting research, collecting data, awarding grants, and providing leadership and coordination on the science and practice of anti-racism in the provision of health care, the public health impacts of systemic racism, and the effectiveness of interventions to address these impacts.
    • Creating at least three regional centers of excellence in anti-racism.
    • Educating the public on the public health impacts of structural racism and anti-racist public health interventions.
    • Consulting with other Centers at the CDC to ensure that scientific and programmatic activities initiated by the agency consider structural racism in their designs, conceptualizations, and executions.
  • Create a Law Enforcement Violence Prevention Program within the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC. Physical and psychological violence perpetuated by law enforcement results in deaths, injuries, trauma, and stress, and disproportionately affects marginalized populations. This bill would take a public health approach to combating police brutality and violence by creating a dedicated law enforcement violence prevention program at the CDC. 

The full text of the bill can found here.

The bill is endorsed by the following organizations: 

Center for Policing Equity; Center for Popular Democracy; Center for Reproductive Rights; Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health at UCLA; Hispanic Federation; The Justice Collaborative; Justice in Aging; The Lawyer’s Committee; The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; National Medical Association; National Partnership for Women & Families; NAACP; National Urban League; Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP); PolicyLink; Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC); Public Citizen; Social Security Works; UCLA’s COVID-19 Task Force on Racism and Equity; UnidosUS; Union for Reform Judaism; We Must Count Coalition. 

“People of color being infected and dying of COVID-19 is the racial pandemic within the viral pandemic. But even after Americans overcome COVID-19, the racial pandemic will continue if we don’t actively support antiracist research and policy that reduce all racial health disparities. That’s why this Antiracism Center is so critical. That’s why I enthusiastically support its creation. Antiracist work saves lives.” — Ibram X. Kendi, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research

“The Anti-Racism in Public Health Act is a crucial first step we must take to eliminate the systemic racism that is responsible for many of the ethnic and racial disparities we see today in our national health care system. The current health pandemic has only shined a bright light on what we in the African American community have known for a long time:  communities of color are hit harder, and have fewer resources to deal with healthcare challenges in America today.  We need to level the field. Along with the continuation of research into cures and studies about how to distribute those cures, we should develop race-and-ethnicity-conscious public health approaches to reverse the existing disparities.  The federal government needs to begin actively developing and implementing anti-racist health policy so that all Americans may benefit.” — Mr. Hilary O Shelton, the Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau & Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy

“Many don’t equate racism with health care, but countless African Americans and people of color have lost their lives as a result of being denied quality health care. We must address the systemic racism that’s rampant in our healthcare network, and collecting data on the problem is a good first step. I applaud Senator Warren, Rep. Pressley, and their colleagues in Congress for bringing this issue to light and look forward to working together to create change that will save lives.” — Mayor McKinley L. Price, President of the African American Mayors Association sand member of the We Must Count Coalition

“The health of Black people has been adversely impacted by widespread bias in our healthcare system for far too long. Compounding this is the failure to account for the willful and often deadly abuses Black people suffer at the hands of the criminal justice system. Enough is enough. Health equity requires treating Black people with respect, valuing their lives and collecting and analyzing data for research and programs relevant to their lived experiences. This legislation represents a crucial step forward towards achieving just that. Congress must pass it — and then continue the push for equitable policymaking.” — Linda Goler Blount, MPH, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative and member of the We Must Count Coalition

“Across the country, affiliates of the Center for Popular Democracy Action are bearing the brunt of the public health crisis of our time from the overdose epidemic to COVID-19. Predominantly people of color, our members are the healthcare workers, the delivery workers, the supermarket clerks, the Amazon warehouse stockers who took the greatest risks and who are suffering a staggering loss of life. Black and Latinx communities have suffered at disproportionate scales at the hands of this pandemic. They have been repeatedly excluded from help from the government to pay their bills and to address their loss. The healthcare system has failed in part by the blatant racism perpetuated by this administration. We need policy like this to protect frontline communities who have been at the mercy of a careless and racist administration failing to address the broken health care system. The lives of our black members matter and we are grateful to Senator Warren and Representatives Pressley and Lee to help expand research and investment into the public health impacts of structural racism, as well as to require the federal government to begin actively developing anti-racist health policy. This is a long time coming and we are proud to fully endorse the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act of 2020.” — Jennifer Epps-Addison, Co Executive Director, Center for Popular Democracy Action

“The structural racism that underpins health disparities harms people of color across the lifespan. For older adults, discrimination and disparities compound, leading to higher rates of chronic illnesses, diminished access to care at home, more institutionalization and shortened life expectancy. Justice in Aging is proud to support the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act to begin the urgent and necessary investment in research on the public health impacts of structural racism and development of anti-racist health policy to improve the lives of older adults of color.” — Kevin Prindiville, Executive Director at Justice in Aging

“The enduring legacy of slavery and more than four hundred years of systemic racism have created a public health emergency in the United States. While COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Communities of Color, we know this is just one symptom of a deeper public health crisis. Racial inequities, including higher rates of chronic health conditions and the disproportionate impact of police violence on Black and Brown communities, pervade our entire society. We have a moral obligation to recognize that racism is a public health crisis and develop interventions to dismantle systems that perpetuate these inequities. We commend Senator Warren, Representative Pressley, and Representative Lee for introducing the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act.” — Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

“Right now, health and life outcomes are largely dictated by the color of one’s skin. Black people are more likely to be denied quality health care than white people — and consequently disproportionately suffer from chronic conditions and live shorter lives. We need federal efforts like this to dismantle systemic racism. Absent sweeping change, Black people’s lives will continue to be disregarded.” — Dr. Joia Crear Perry, founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative and a member of the We Must Count Coalition

“Systemic racism is a public health crisis. Black and Brown people simply don’t have the same opportunity to thrive as white people. We desperately need federal officials to recognize this and commit to structural change, which starts with better data and research.” — Michael McAfee, President and CEO of PolicyLink and a member of the We Must Count Coalition

“This bill is an important recognition of the myriad ways that structural racism drives health outcomes in our country – and of the need for our government to drive change toward better health for all.” — Megan Haberle, Deputy Director, Poverty & Race Research Action Council