Racism: America’s Longest-Running Epidemic

How racial discrimination hurts the country’s health—and what to do about it.

Anxious Black man sitting with children

Consider the following statistics:

  • Black, American Indian and Alaska Native women are at least three times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women.
  • Black kids are at three times higher risk of losing their mom by age 10, compared to white kids.
  • American Indian and Alaska Native patients are nearly four times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19.
  • Asian Americans are about 80 percent more prone to end-stage kidney disease.
  • Latinx people are more likely to have obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes—all risk factors for serious long-term conditions like heart disease.

Meanwhile, self-identified Black or African American people were more than twice as likely as white people to report feeling down, depressed or hopeless more than half the days during their previous two weeks, according to a survey conducted in June 2020 by Sharecare’s Community Well-Being Index (CWBI).

What accounts for these dramatic discrepancies in health?

While some inherited factors may influence the risk of illness, the vast majority of differences in health outcomes between Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals and white people are not the result of DNA.

Instead, these disparities often stem from community, economic and environmental circumstances—also known as social determinants of health—that result from deeply rooted patterns of inequality in American society. Additionally, different forms of discrimination affect how BIPOC people are treated everywhere from doctors’ offices to job interviews, which can lead to even further inequity in people’s health and careers.

“Too often, scientists tend to stop at the end of sentences like, ‘Black people have a greater risk of dying from [insert condition here],” says Kylie Smith, PhD, associate professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and principal investigator on the National Library of Medicine-funded project, Jim Crow in the Asylum: Psychiatry and Civil Rights in the American South.

It’s important to follow that up with ‘because,’ Smith explains, so people—including healthcare providers—understand the context for why BIPOC people are more likely to get sick than white people. This ‘because’ can be explained, in large part, by systemic inequities that have plagued America for centuries and that persist today.

Understanding the roots of health disparities

Making sense of differences in health outcomes based on race starts with looking at social determinants of health (SDOH). These are the conditions in the places where “people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age” that affect a wide range of health and life outcomes and risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SDOH include access to safe housing, nutritious food and healthcare services, as well as education and job opportunities. These determinants also impact whether communities have safe public transportation and clean air, water and green spaces.

Across many dimensions of daily life, the legacy of segregation in the United States has created inequalities that can set certain BIPOC communities on paths toward poorer health. For example:

  • BIPOC families are more likely than white families to live in areas with excessive air pollution, which can lead to asthma and lung damage.
  • BIPOC people are more often exposed to water systems tainted with lead or other impurities—think Flint, Michigan—which can cause neurological damage and can lead to severe problems in children’s development. Black children in America are three times more likely than white children to have high levels of lead in their blood.  
  • BIPOC people are more likely to live in neighborhoods that lack well-stocked grocery stores and safe parks, which hurts access to healthy food and outdoor exercise. This can make people more prone to conditions like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

It’s important to note, however, that even when people have the same wealth and education levels across racial and ethnic groups, BIPOC people still experience worse health outcomes.

This may be due, at least in part, to the mental and physical toll that comes from regularly facing discrimination in many settings, including school, work, housing and interactions with law enforcement. This unrelenting daily stress often overwhelms the physical responses that keep bodies working properly. In turn, this puts BIPOC people at increased risk for a number of serious health issues and tends to make them sicker sooner in life.

Inequities in healthcare

Economic, workforce and other factors can make it harder for BIPOC people to access good health insurance, as well. Even when they have the right coverage, BIPOC people may not receive the same quality of care.

“When BIPOC people, regardless of wealth or education level, do access the health system, they’re often faced with discriminatory practices,” says Lisa Muirhead, DNP, APRN, Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Emory’s School of Nursing. “The burden of constantly seeking equitable care is time-consuming, stressful and outright exhausting. Repeat exposures to discrimination can cause BIPOC people to distrust healthcare providers.”

“The long history of unequal and unethical healthcare in our country traces all the way back to slavery," Smith adds. “The knowledge of this history—and the experience of racism—are very real and can keep people from accessing healthcare regardless of insurance status.”

A public health emergency

COVID-19—with its disproportionate effect on BIPOC people—has laid bare the racial health disparities that plague the United States. And now, in the wake of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, more communities are trying to address the problem.

Racism has been declared a public health emergency in more than 70 counties across 32 states. Several counties have pledged to rally political energy to close racial health gaps. Many more are studying the ways in which related systems—like local economies and the criminal justice system—overlap to put majority-BIPOC neighborhoods at greater risk for violence and disease. 

Take Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police who entered her apartment in the early morning of March 13, 2020. Life expectancy varies so much by neighborhood that people in majority-white Eastern Louisville live nearly 12.6 years longer on average than those in predominantly-BIPOC Northwestern Louisville.

By declaring racism a public health emergency, leaders and communities in Louisville have committed to treating 11 locally identified causes of racial injustice, including income gaps, environmental exposures and criminal justice problems.

Major medical organizations are following suit. In November 2020, the American Heart Association (AHA) published a “Call to Action” in the journal Circulation, arguing that racism is a cause of persistent health disparities in the U.S.

In its report, the AHA notes, “Structural racism prevents us from achieving health equity for all we have the opportunity to serve. Our work must advance the science to understand structural racism and its effects on health, how to eliminate its adverse consequences, and how to offer concrete, science-informed solutions, and actionable steps and programs to improve health and well-being, to achieve equitable health for all.”

What Americans can do to help

BIPOC people cannot bear responsibility for the broken systems that are making them sick. Every person who holds power or privilege needs to examine their own role in upholding systems that disadvantage others. You don’t have to be a nurse, healthcare professional or politician to improve your community. But you do need to participate in finding solutions.

“From the standpoint of community well-being, it is critical to start breaking down the social determinant and environmental circumstances that define predominately BIPOC neighborhoods and populations broadly,” says Elizabeth Colyer, Sharecare senior vice president of the CWBI. “When we ensure that all neighborhoods have access to clean water and air, quality education and healthcare and economic opportunity, we’re helping to ensure that critical social determinants are not impeding BIPOC populations but are instead enabling these populations in their health and well-being journeys.”

Beyond working to create well-being across and within communities, it is also critical to break down racism at its core. This begins with confronting racist thinking in its various forms and developing programs and policies that address systemic racism. It includes:

  • Studying and understanding the history of systemic inequality in the U.S.
  • Supporting diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace, especially in health and medical fields
  • Voting for public officials whose policies are tied to equality

“To be an ally means to commit to walking in solidarity for racial and social justice,” says Muirhead. “What truly counts is when someone is willing to use their voice to speak against injustice, even when no one’s watching.”

“It’s common to have this feeling that racism is something that just sort of happens magically,” adds Smith. “But racism doesn't come out of nowhere.”

Unequal systems—in healthcare, housing and elsewhere—are the result of policy decisions that have been made and carried out, over the centuries, by everyday people, she says. “These decisions will stand until someone steps up to change them. We made them, so we can unmake them.”

This article is part of an ongoing series on racial health inequities.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Racial and Ethnic Disparities Continue in Pregnancy-Related Deaths. September 5, 2019.
Umberson D, Olson JS, Crosnoe R, Liu H, Pudrovska T, Donnelly R. Death of family members as an overlooked source of racial disadvantage in the United States. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2017;114(5):915-20.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of Minority Health. Diabetes and Asian Americans. December 19, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Hospitalization and Death by Race/Ethnicity. Updated August 18, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health, United States Spotlight Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Heart Disease. April 2019.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Social Determinants of Health. Last updated October 8, 2020.
Williams DR, Lawrence JA, Davis BA, Vu C. Understanding how discrimination can affect health. Health Serv. Res. 2019;54 Suppl 2:1374-1388.
Williams DR, Rucker TD. Understanding and addressing racial disparities in health care. Health Care Financ. Rev. 2000;21(4):75-90.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. The Links Between Air Pollution and Childhood Asthma.​Published October 22, 2018.
American Lung Association. Disparities in the Impact of Air Pollution.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Health and Medicine Division, Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, Committee on Community-Based Solutions to Promote Health Equity in the United States. Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity. (Baciu A, Negussie Y, Geller A, Weinstein JN, eds.). Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2017.
Bernard SM, McGeehin MA. Prevalence of blood lead levels >or= 5 micro g/dL among US children 1 to 5 years of age and socioeconomic and demographic factors associated with blood of lead levels 5 to 10 micro g/dL, Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988-1994. Pediatrics 2003;112(6 Pt 1):1308-1313.
Kelly Brooks. Research Shows Food Deserts More Abundant In Minority Neighborhoods. Johns Hopkins Magazine. Spring 2014.
Hanna Love and Jennifer S. Vey. To build safe streets, we need to address racism in urban design. Brookings. August 28, 2019.
American Public Health Association. Addressing Law Enforcement Violence as a Public Health Issue. November 13, 2018.
Kwate NOA, Goodman MS. Cross-sectional and longitudinal effects of racism on mental health among residents of Black neighborhoods in New York City. Am. J. Public Health 2015;105(4):711-718.
Sawyer PJ, Major B, Casad BJ, Townsend SSM, Mendes WB. Discrimination and the stress response: psychological and physiological consequences of anticipating prejudice in interethnic interactions. Am. J. Public Health 2012;102(5):1020-1026.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Discrimination. Last updated October 8, 2020.
Wilson KB, Thorpe RJ, LaVeist TA. Dollar for Dollar: Racial and ethnic inequalities in health and health-related outcomes among persons with very high income. Prev. Med. 2017;96:149-153.
Christine Vestal. Racism Is a Public Health Crisis, Say Cities and Counties. The Pew Charitable Trusts. June 15, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups. Updated July 24, 2020.
American Public Health Association. Declarations of Racism as a Public Health Issue.
Churchwell K, Elkind MSV, Benjamin RM, et al. Call to action: structural racism as a fundamental driver of health disparities: A presidential advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2020:CIR0000000000000936.

More On

How the power of curiosity can change your life


How the power of curiosity can change your life
In this episode of Small Changes, Big Results we hear from various psychological professionals on the benefits curiosity can have in our lives. We lea...
Getting Your Medical Record Is a Cinch


Getting Your Medical Record Is a Cinch
Change happens all the time -- in the medical profession and in your own life. Perhaps a great job opportunity requires a cross-country move. Or maybe...
60 Seconds To Better Health


60 Seconds To Better Health
Got a minute? Lengthen your life and relieve stress in just 60 seconds.
Will a medical avatar or assistant be more effective for physicians than nurses?


Will a medical avatar or assistant be more effective for physicians than nurses?
Medical avatars are among the newest advancements in the healthcare industry. William Mobley, MD, PhD, describes how they work and the continuing role...
Why should I avoid sitting all day at work?


Why should I avoid sitting all day at work?
Sitting may seem harmless, but it can shorten your life. Vonda Wright, MD, shares a simple anti-aging tip to boost your longevity: Spend more time sta...