At University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health’s Diversity Summit Thursday, the keynote speaker sketched the racial tensions and inequities present within the field of public health, citing studies from life expectancy rates to demographic income disparities. 

Denise Rodgers, vice chancellor of Biomedical and Health Sciences at Rutgers University, said an“inconvenient truth” was that African Americans have the lowest life expectancies in the country.

“Racism is bad for your health,” Rodgers said. “Access to healthcare and services certainly contributes to the disparity [between life expectancies].”

Housing, geography and income all impact public health, Rodgers said. Even education can shorten or lengthen someone’s life. Graduating high school, for instance, can increase life expectancy dramatically, Rodgers said. 

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Educational background and infant mortality rates are aggravated by racial divisions, Rodgers continued. According to a studypregnant black women with an advanced degree still fall victim to infant mortality twice as often as pregnant white women.

“I don’t think there are any of us in health or public health that can look at this graph and feel good about what we’re doing,” Rodgers said. “There is clearly something very, very wrong here, regardless of race and ethnicity.”

Rodgers spoke about the potential causes of these tensions and disparities. The racist history of the U.S. and the biases, both conscious and unconscious, shape societal attitudes and public policy today. Any attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act would be a detriment to public health, especially for African Americans, Rodgers claimed.

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To make matters worse, low-income geographic areas tend to discourage a healthy lifestyle. Working in a low-income area, Rodgers said she sees fast food restaurants — and not much else.

“Residential segregation also systematically shapes healthcare access, utilization and quality of the neighborhood, and healthcare system providers,” Rodgers said.

Household dysfunction that often rises from poverty also exacerbates poor public health. Goldstein said children who experience severe abuse are at risk of dying twenty years before their peers, no matter the race. Experiencing abuse as a child has a similar effect on health outcomes as racism does, Rodgers said.

Even within healthcare systems, African Americans are marginalized, Goldstein said. During the treatment of cancers and heart disease — which disproportionately affect African Americans — many healthcare professionals tend to treat African Americans differently. White patients are twice as likely to receive pain medications as black patients, for instance. 

“Internalized racism is something we all must acknowledge,” Rodgers said. “This is the history of the United States.”