On October 15, the Madison’s city council signed on to the Wisconsin Public Health Association’s 2018 resolution declaring racism to be a public health crisis, adding to the list of 35 groups including Milwaukee County that have signed the resolution. 

The resolution was sponsored by 20 council members, including Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. 

Director of Public Health Madison and Dane County Janel Heinrich said that, based on scientific research, racism deeply affects the health of communities of color.

“Our systems our set up to produce chronic toxic stress, and it’s actually having an impact on our health outcomes,” Heinrich said.

According the WPHA president Lieske Giese, there’s been a growing recognition that racism independently impacts health outcomes. 

Research documenting racism’s impact on a population’s health outcomes can be traced back over 2 decades. In 1996, sociologist Nancy Krieger published a groundbreaking study which directly tied increased incidence of hypertension among African Americans to racism. Notably, the study found that the harmful effect of self reported racial discrimination was comparable to other commonly cited reasons for high blood pressure like insufficient excercise, smoking, and a high-fat or high-salt diet. 

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A 2003 Harvard School of Public Health report found that African Americans and other minority populations were less likely to receive life saving interventions such as coronary bypasses and kidney transplants, even after receiving access to healthcare. 

The health impact of racism also takes place outside of healthcare. As a field, public health aims to understand every factor that can impact a person’s ability to be healthy, Giese said. The field’s broad scope goes far beyond health in strictly clinical setting, covering issues as diverse as education, housing, transportation, the environment, and criminal justice. 

“An enormous focus of public health has been on instances where people are not afforded the same opportunities to be healthy,” Giese said. “Having access to a doctor or a health care provider is important, but it’s not sufficient.”

According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control, life expectancy for blacks is 3.5 years less than that for whites, and black in every age group under 65 face significantly higher mortality rates than their white counterparts. Blacks tend to experience relatively high mortality rates at younger ages for diseases that whites tend to experience at older ages, such as diabetes and heart disease. 

Dane County’s own statistics reflect the racial disparity in health outcomes at the national level. According to a report from the Foundation for Black Womens’ Wellness, a group that the city has partnered with to address racial disparities in low infant birth rate, babies born to black mothers are more than twice as likely to be born underweight than those born to white mothers. Dane County public health data cited in the report put the Black infant mortality at 15.4 deaths per live birth, 2.6 times Wisconsin’s overall infant mortality rate. 

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“We’re seeing across the board in our communities of color, especially in our African American communities, negatively disparate rates of low birth weight, infant mortality, later diagnosis of cancers leading to a higher rate of death, and the list can go on and on and on,” Heinrich said. 

The WPHA is a membership organization consisting of a broad coalition of academics, civil servants, and not-for-profit organizations. Under the umbrella of public health, the group works to build a healthier Wisconsin through policy initiatives and education of its members, Giese said.

In July of 2017, a month before the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, as the topic of white supremacy was being increasingly brought up in the news cycle, the WPHA decided it had to address racism as a public health issue. 

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“The incidents that happened in Charlottesville and the racial attacks happening across the US really raised people’s awareness that to be silent about this issue in Wisconsin was just not okay anymore,” Giese said. “Our data was bad, and there appeared to be a strengthening outwardly facing group that was actively racist.”

A small group within the WPHA drafted a resolution declaring racism to be a public health crisis that winter and it was approved and published in May.

“We want to improve the health of Wisconsin,” Giese said. “We are not gonna be able to do that if we don’t address racism.”