Charlottesville, Racism and Public Health: What Can We Do in the Granite State?

I, like you I am certain, watched in horror as the violence and hate erupted during the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this month. I had a visceral reaction to the images as they unfolded on the screen; first because it was so terrifying and repulsive to witness the level of hate expressed by the white nationalists and secondly because I attended the University of Virginian and it hit too close to home. Charlottesville is a bucolic, architecturally beautiful city situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is steeped in tradition, academic excellence and the influences of Thomas Jefferson – who admittedly is not beyond controversy. But seeing this happen in Charlottesville made it clear, this type of expression of racism could happen anywhere. It leaves us with so many questions about how we find ourselves in this place, right now in this country and what we can do to confront the overwhelming issue of racism.

In a recent article in CNN (August 15, 2017) several health organizations (the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Psychological Association and the American Public Health Association) were noted to acknowledge racism as a public health issue. It was reported that multiple studies suggest that the risk for health issues such as depression, hypertension, heart disease and death can be increased for individuals experiencing racism or discrimination.

But what can we do about racism? The American Public Health Association campaign against racism suggests three approaches to address racism.

  1. Put racism on the agenda. Name racism as a force determining the social determinants of health.
  2. Ask “How is racism operating here?” Identify how racism drives past and current policies, practices, norms and values that create the inequitable conditions in which we are born, grow, live, learn and age.
  3. Organize and strategize to act. Promote and facilitate conversation, research and intervention to address racism and its negative impact on the health of our nation.

Having recently revisited its values, NHPHA pledges to become a part of the solution in New Hampshire. Our pertinent revised values are:

Equity- We believe in fair and just opportunities that will allow people to achieve their full health potential
Community – We believe that everyone has a right to live, work and play in healthy and safe communities that foster well-being and prosperity
Collaboration – We mobilize partners for collective action to advance the public’s health

We have the opportunity to participate in this conversation with two upcoming events in New Hampshire. First is the Inaugural Symposium on Race and Equity: Building Foundations for the Future sponsored by the Endowment for Health. The symposium is currently at capacity due to the tremendous interest but is seeking to increase that capacity to accommodate interested participants. Secondly, NHPHA is holding its annual fall forum on November 15, 2017 and will focus on strategies to advance health equity in the state. A save the date can be found in our August newsletter.

In a recent interview on NPR, Brittany Packnett, educator and activist provides some guidance and encouragement for taking on something as massive as racism. “Get in community with other people. It might be a book group. It might be you and your neighbors. It might be members of your family. But get together and figure out how you're going to work on this together.” Packnett goes on to talk about the importance of awareness first. “Educate yourself as to the fact that racism is not only real but that it's more than extremes like the KKK or even the individual, everyday slights. There are tools like Peggy McIntosh's "Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack" that gives you 50 ways in which white privilege can manifest in your life.” Packnett notes that we can confront racism when it pops up in many ways, “It's about making sure that when you see a colleague of color being spoken over, that you acknowledge that in the moment…. It means …. checking yourself when you see a black man walking down the street and you decide to cross it. Having the dialogue within yourself to say, why did I have that reaction, and how can I hold myself accountable to my own biases and disrupting those? …We need to make covert forms of racism as socially unacceptable as what we saw in Charlottesville.”

We at NHPHA look forward to working with our partners to have these difficult conversations and taking action to confront racism in New Hampshire.

Written by Joan Ascheim, Interim Executive Director NHPHA
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