Racial justice–the systematic fair treatment of people of all races in policy and practice–promotes equitable opportunities and outcomes for all. It is a term frequently used in considering the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on communities of color and the publicized incidents of police violence.
Systematically, racial injustice permeates the fabric of all of our institutions. It concentrates environmental hazards and defunds schools in neighborhoods of color, restricts the right to vote and racially gerrymanders election districts, and assigns harsher criminal sentences to people of color for the same crimes. The pervasiveness of racial inequity is seen in everything from healthcare to housing. For example, Black Americans are five times more likely to be stopped without just cause than white people, and three out of five African Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.
Although starting in 2020 the media has cast a brighter spotlight on overt issues of racial injustice like police violence and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black men and women, structural racism has its roots in our country’s foundation. The genocide of indigenous nations and the enslavement of Black people in the U.S. created wealth, opportunity, and economic prosperity for millions of white Americans, while simultaneously oppressing people of color. Slavery evolved into racial lynchings, codified segregation, “Jim Crow” laws, and the present day system of mass incarceration.
Racial injustice has far reaching economic, social, and health-related consequences. Chronic stressors that contribute to increased morbidity and mortality for people of color include food insecurity, substandard housing conditions, inadequate access to health care, workplace discrimination and heightened exposure to violence. Even the great equalizer and bedrock of democracy–the right to vote–is restricted for people of color. Strict voter identification laws, restrictions on Sunday voting, longer wait times, transportation issues, and polling place closures disproportionately affect voters of color.
To protect the rights and the health of Americans of color, every sector of society needs to consider the role it plays in promoting or hampering racial justice. Policymakers should prioritize passing the current Voting Rights Bills, decriminalizing drug possession, reallocating law enforcement resources to community safety, enforcing stricter equity standards for sentencing laws, and strengthening re-entry programs for recently incarcerated individuals. Within healthcare, providers and systems must acknowledge the decades of medical abuse and exploitation of people of color for research and medicine while building trust and access to care.
At a micro level, individuals should be vocal allies for BIPOC and demonstrate anti-racist attitudes and actions in spheres of influence such as social circles, workplaces, and local communities. To truly make meaningful progress towards racial justice, we can start by educating our youth and public about the role of race and racism in the United States. Only by acknowledging these legacies can we protect and promote the health and success of all Americans, no exceptions.