To ensure health equity, there needs to be a united response to the prevalence of racism in health care, according to President of the American Public Health Association Camara Jones at a talk at the Georgetown University Medical Center on Monday.
According to Jones, racism has three levels — institutionalized, personally mediated and internalized — that each contributes to differing qualities of health care between demographics.
Jones said it is important to tackle all three levels of racism.
“That is our challenge, especially in these days. That is our challenge when you are activated as a campus community to acknowledge history and then have to rectify it,” Jones said. “The reason we need universal access to high-quality health care is because that’s how a civilized society values all of its people equally.”
Various systems of oppression must be addressed to ensure health equity, according to Jones.
“We must address these systems of power like racism, heterosexism, economic systems like capitalism and the like that are distributing resources in populations if we want to achieve social justice and eliminate health disparity.”
Jones also identified three major obstacles to reaching health equity: a lack of knowledge about historical culture, a narrow focus on the individual and an emphasis on meritocracy, which is particularly dangerous.
“The myth of meritocracy is a myth of equal opportunity which has not yet been realized in this country,” Jones said.
Jones said racism can be invisible to those who are not affected by it.
“It is difficult for men to recognize male privilege and sexism. It is difficult for white Americans to recognize white privilege and racism. It is difficult for all Americans to recognize how American privilege in the global context is,” Jones said. “But for those on the outside, they are very aware of that there’s a two-sided sign going on because the sign’s closed to them and they can look through the window and see people inside.”
Jones said even those who do not see racism must help address its prevalence in society.
“Does racism really exist? I say I know it’s hard to know. In fact, that’s part of being privileged — not to have to know,” Jones said. “But once you do know, you choose to act. So it’s not a scary thing; it’s an empowering thing. And it doesn’t even compel you to act, but it equips you to act.”
Jones proposed three steps towards achieving health equity: naming racism, considering in what forms racism is operating and organizing and strategizing to act. Addressing the social determinants of health is imperative in eliminating inequities in health care.
Taylor Brown (NHS ’16), who attended the event, said Jones’ call to action is a guiding principle as she prepares for life after Georgetown. A health care management and policy major, Brown said she hopes to influence the health care system to become more equitable.
“Being a health care management and policy major, it’s honestly been a very interdisciplinary major as far as studies go,” Brown said. “While I am interested in both management and policy, no matter what job I end up getting, I definitely want to not lose sight of the fact that I want to go into the health care field to create a more equitable system, and she gave me so many tips and recommendations to keep in mind as I’m looking for jobs.”
NHS Assistant Dean of Student Academic Affairs Brian Floyd said it is important for Georgetown to seek health equity in the community’s actions.
“As our institution has recently announced its steps to atone for its past with slavery, we also feel that this talk and topic is an important part of these efforts, not only to raise awareness to those in our community of the health disparities that continue to exist for many vulnerable populations but also to share how we as a school are committed to aiding in this effort,” Floyd said.
Jones invited the audience to participate in her talk and her work as a whole.
“I am going to share these tools with you so that they become your tools,” Jones said, “because this is not my national campaign against racism; I want to invite you to become active duty, anti-racism, actively engaged in it.”