Friday, September 30, 2011

Racial Justice: Why we need to be talking about race

Are we living in a post-racial society? That question has been bandied about frequently since the election of President Barack Obama, the assumption being that electing an African-American to our highest office was proof enough that America’s complicated, and often ugly, past was long behind it. But for people of color and the activists and community groups that work to achieve racial equity in health, education, employment, housing, and everything else the answer is simple: no.

Confronting race to achieve health equity was the theme of a racial justice training that Bronx Health REACH and staff from REACH communities around the country received earlier this week in Washington, DC. Presented by the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank, the group learned how to frame issues with a racial equity lens and to recognize the different ways that racism can appear (internal, interpersonal, institutional, structural). The major takeaway was that we need to be explicit in addressing race as a key component in our work. If we shy away because we are afraid of being accused of playing the “race card”, we may unintentionally derail the policies necessary to address structural and systemic racism.

In an earlier blog post, we wrote about a recent study that found that race and ethnicity was the primary barrier to proper follow-up after an abnormal breast cancer screening. Another study, published in May in the Journal for the Poor and Underserved, looked at Emergency Room wait times based on race. The researchers found that African-Americans coming to the ER with chest pains were 1.42 times more likely to wait longer than 60 minutes than whites. Similar trends occurred with Hispanic patients. Race, whether intentionally or not, is a factor in this decision-making and it needs to be addressed head-on.

Taylor Branch, Dr. Martin Luther King’s biographer, said that King saw race as part of everything, but not all of anything. In Bronx Health REACH’s work to achieve health equity in communities of color, we know this is true. Race is a major factor in our work, but it’s not all of it. Like everything else, health equity requires a multi-faceted approach and, as the ARC trainers taught, we should be race explicit, but not race exclusive. Though bringing up race can be uncomfortable and often unwelcome, these are necessary conversations. If we don’t keep having them, study after study will continue to show the blatant disparity in access to health care between whites and people of color and the people we work with will continue to experience unfair treatment. Advancing the premise of America being a colorblind society benefits no one and doesn’t move our country any further along in realizing the equity for all that we so need.

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