Downtown San Diego / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Now that our society is addressing poverty and violence as public health crises, it’s time that all cities in San Diego County also declare racism as one, too. But it’s not enough to just declare it; we must act on it.

Recent events are highlighting what many public health experts have long understood – that being a person of color is harmful to your health.

By definition of the American Public Health Association, a public health issue is something that “hurts and kills people or impedes their ability to live a healthy, prosperous life.” Racism certainly falls in that category.

Sadly, our society has institutionalized racism through systems and government policies that favored whites over minorities. “Redlining” of neighborhoods in southeastern San Diego in the 1930s resulted from efforts by the federal government to differentiate neighborhoods that they considered high risk for defaulting on loans (e.g., Logan Heights) from those that weren’t (e.g., La Jolla). Neighborhoods such as Logan Heights were explicitly described in the government’s justification as “colored” while La Jolla was described as mostly white.

The New Deal was another federal policy that mandated that public housing projects be segregated, isolating minority communities from much-needed investment by businesses and government.

Those maps and policies, “through government subsidized, racially segregated suburban sprawl on the one hand and racialized urban disinvestment on the other” had long-lasting effects after World War II, San Diego State University history professor Andrew Wiese told KPBS in 2018.

Racism doesn’t just inflict physical injuries and disease on a person of color, it also contributes to psychological harm.

“Racism structures opportunity and assigns value based on how a person looks. The result: conditions that unfairly advantage some and unfairly disadvantage others,” the American Public Health Association notes. “Racism hurts the health of our nation by preventing some people the opportunity to attain their highest level of health.”

Take into consideration that people of color are more likely to experience lower-quality health care, have less access to resources like education and experience prejudice in their professional and personal lives. Several studies suggest that this can result in stress, which raises the risk of emotional and physical health problems, including depression, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and even death.

If there is one thing that can be said about COVID-19, it is that the virus has shed light on how races are impacted disproportionately. According to the California Department of Public Health, Latinos lead all other races in the percentage of COVID-19 cases by almost 40 percent compared with the next highest group – Whites. Yet these populations are almost equally represented in the state’s demographic make-up – 39 percent and 37 percent, respectively.

Though public health officials stress that COVID-19 can affect a person of any age or race, they find that those with underlying conditions are more at risk. Perhaps this and the fact that Latinos have the highest rates of being uninsured of any racial or ethnic group in California is why we are seeing more COVID-19 cases among Latinos.

To achieve health equity so that all San Diegans live the kind of life that we all desire, we must address the injustices caused by racism. We must support actions at all levels to ensure equal opportunity for all.

Therefore, it is time for all cities in San Diego County to join the growing chorus of organizations, states, counties and other municipalities that have declared racism a public health crisis. A formal declaration opens up avenues for specific action that ensures racial equity.

For instance, in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin – the first to make the declaration – over 4,000 county employees, including judges and police, have received racial equity training.

On the East Coast, recognizing that pregnancy problems are more prevalent in minority mothers, health officials in Montgomery County, Maryland – a county that has also made a formal declaration – are asking OB-GYNs to provide additional testing to black women much as they would for older pregnant women of any race.

And here in California, San Bernardino County is leading the state with its faith community-led efforts in making a formal declaration and formulating actionable items such as providing funding to address health outcomes among minorities.

If we change how we view racism – not only as an ethical impediment but also as a public health threat to minority communities – all San Diegans will have the opportunity to fulfill the county’s Live Well vision of a healthy, safe and thriving region.

Brittany Hunsinger is the project manager for Partnerships 4 Success, a project in San Diego’s South Bay that brings together representatives from government, public health, education, social services and community members to address health inequities among the Latino population.

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