“Racism is in the root, it’s at the bottom of the tree and we’re always trying to prune those pieces off because the tree is good but we still need to take care of that base.” Dr. Kristopher Hall’s thought-provoking statement sets the stage for the University of San Diego’s “Baked In: Systemic Racism Around and Within Us Series.” To commemorate Black History month, the series explored different areas of study in which racism has taken hold in order to highlight how deeply embedded systemic racism still is today. Moderated by Dr. Jillian Tullis, the “Systemic Racism In Health” event featured a panel of speakers consisting of Associate Professor of Nursing Dr. Martha Fuller, Assistant Professor Dr. Kristopher Hall, and Associate Professor of Environmental and Ocean Sciences Dr. Drew Talley. Throughout the event, the speakers urged the public to acknowledge that there are endless social and environmental factors that affect the physical and emotional health of the black community. In doing so, the program aims to discuss and encourage the recognition of the roots of systemic racism and the ways these factors work in order to successfully retaliate systemic racism in health and improve the conditions of the black community. The program poses major questions that will be addressed throughout this review: How do the racial ideologies of anti-black healthcare workers repress advances made by the black community? How does systemic racism in health stem from society’s actions? What must be done to combat systemic racism in health and close the gap?
Too often, we hear black people being told that their troubles are a result of their own actions but extraneous social, environmental, and financial factors typically aren’t taken into account. Having a healthy lifestyle only accounts for 30% of health outcomes whereas, social factors and social determinants of health account for 40%, producing a greater impact. “We are traditionally taught to believe that health outcomes are individual responsibilities” Dr. Fuller notes. Her statement introduces an already dangerous mindset that proves to be unimaginably harmful to the black community: people discounting and victim blaming. In 2011, professional tennis player Serena Williams experienced this discrimination first hand during childbirth. By incorporating such a notable figure into the conversation, Dr. Fuller emphasizes the frequency in which black women are ignored and the appalling reality that even those who have made their mark in history still struggle to prove their worthiness of what should be a basic human right. The discounting of black lives and voices is a recurring theme in history, connecting to as far back as the black laws. Discussed in “Chapter 4: Slavery and Freedom in the New Republic [1775-1820]” from the text Freedom on My Mind by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr., the black laws required “all free blacks to supply legal proof of their free status and to post a $500 bond to guarantee their good behavior” (“Achieving Emancipation in the North”, 147). These unreasonable regulations established a lasting belief that black people were not naturally deserving of civil rights and must surrender even more than they already have. This need for proof is alarmingly similar to the issue of people discounting that the black community, especially black females, continue to face today. According to “Chapter 5: Black Life in the Slave South [1820-1860],” also from the text Freedom on My Mind, racial ideologies of black women and their presumed ability to handle pain were even prevalent in the institution of slavery, as “many slave owners and overseers were convinced that black women were naturally immune to the rigors of pregnancy, which often kept white women confined to their beds for months” (“Gender, Age, and Work,” 197). Greedy masters used this explanation to excuse their abusive treatment of pregnant slaves and further exploit the labor of black women. The continued existence of these dangerous racial ideologies reinforces the heartbreaking reality that the treatment and position of black people in society today has not improved by much. While African American history witnessed more rights and acknowledgement, it is obvious that they do not actually experience equality and freedom as completely as society claims. By addressing this impediment, the program pinpoints major problems that must be addressed when identifying new methods of educating future healthcare workers to better support the black community.
From the construction of hospitals to the planting of trees, the location of every object is not quite as random as it may seem. Much like the placement of life, the existence of systemic racism is not an accident, but instead a product of the former. Redlining, the unjust denial of various services to certain areas of a community due to the racial characteristics of the neighborhood, has severe implications that create environmental and financial gaps between black and non-black communities. A specific instance of this injustice is associated with John Hopkins Hospital, one of the most prominent hospitals in the United States. All three speakers had much to say about the role this hospital played in the degradation of black communities and their health. The hospital was built right next to the slums but as it became increasingly profitable, the government bought up the neighboring land and started pushing out all of the residents, people who had been there for generations. The exact same situation happened to Africatown in the documentary What the Discovery of the Last American Slave Ship Means to Descendants. Africatown became home to African Americans who wanted to make this community their Africa. But then in the 1960s, the city was rezoned from residential to heavy industry to collect taxes. “Most of the people who were sick had been the ones who were playing in this soot, in this ash that was falling from the smokestacks of the industry around” (What the Discovery of the Last American Slave Ship Means to Descendants, 5:20). The fate of Africatown strongly reinforces the program’s key argument that black communities face various environmental and social injustices that negatively affect the health of the communities. These injustices are the result of deliberate decisions and actions, yet society still refuses to admit that the consequences of these actions are yet another form of harm to the health of black communities. Society needs to verbally acknowledge the truth that the lives of African Americans are affected by social, financial, environmental and other endless factors, in order to provide proper assistance to combat these injustices. They are as much a part of this society as everyone else and it is time the world owns up to its contributions to systemic racism and takes the necessary actions to protect black citizens from suffering any longer.
Black History Month not only looks to honor the laborious pasts of African Americans, but it also serves to remind the rest of the world about the endless advances that can and still need to be made in this lifetime. While movements such as Black Lives Matter and White Coats for Black Lives take the stage today, it is important to recognize that the battle against systemic racism is far from over. The injustice and inequality faced by the black community is rough and depressing, and there’s no way not to be frustrated and angry, but the black community continues to show up because they want to be seen. Abolitionists and leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vesey have long been expressing these grievances. It is time that the rest of the world listens and takes steps to create change.
Baked In: Systemic Racism Around and Within Us Series. School of Law – University of San Diego, 16 Feb. 2021, www.sandiego.edu/events/law/detail.php?_focus=79255.
“Chapter 4: Slavery and Freedom in the New Republic, 1775-1820.” Freedom on My Mind, by Deborah Gray White et al., 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 147.
“Chapter 5: Black Life in the Slave South, 1820-1860.” Freedom on My Mind, by Deborah Gray White et al., 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp. 197.
Salam, Maya. “For Serena Williams, Childbirth Was a Harrowing Ordeal. She’s Not Alone.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/11/sports/tennis/serena-williams-baby-vogue.html.
“What the Discovery of the Last American Slave Ship Means to Descendants.” National Geographic , 22 May 2019, youtu.be/pGeoFbTr3k0.