Campus News

BLOG: A Public Health Approach to Anti-racism

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 14, 2021) Following is a blog by Rafael E. Pérez-Figueroa, assistant professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society in the College of Public Health, and Kathryn M. Cardarelli, associate professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society and senior assistant provost for faculty affairs and professional development at the University of Kentucky.

Racism has long defined health and well-being in our state and the country. Currently, the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and law enforcement violence has exacerbated a complex ecosystem framing health inequities nationally. By March 2020, following the killing of Breonna Taylor, issues of structural racism and health inequities were at the forefront of our public consciousness. In response to the local and national reckoning associated with Taylor’s and others’ deaths, we organized a yearlong program of events at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health with the goal of promoting an anti-racist environment in our academic community. All of the events in this program were recorded and are available here.

The program started in September 2020 with a virtual symposium titled “Racial and Ethnic Health Inequities in the United States.” The symposium aimed to tackle important health inequities in the United States and the role of structural racism and to provide public health frameworks to address health inequities among racial and ethnic minorities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We invited three external well-recognized public health scholars — Luisa N. Borrell, DDS, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the City University of New York; Gilbert C. Gee, PhD, Professor of Community Health Sciences at UCLA; and Robert E. Fullilove, EdD, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University — representing different perspectives and diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds to address these issues. Together, the speakers emphasized social and health justice so that everyone can thrive in this country.

In October 2020, we delivered “RaceWorks: Bridging Research and Practice to Foster Racial Literacy.” This event featured MarYam Hamedani, PhD, Managing Director and Senior Research Scientist at Stanford University. RaceWorks is an open access resource developed by Stanford for educators who want to develop students’ racial literacy. This resource includes a series of short videos with Stanford scholars from various disciplines that explore how people "do race" and ways to "undo racism" and an accompanying digital toolkit with discussion questions and activities that complement the videos. The speaker discussed the experience of Stanford University addressing issues of race and undoing racism. This event was intended to develop the confidence of faculty, students, staff and other members of our academic community discussing race and racism.

Lastly, in March 2021, we hosted “A Deeper Understanding of Racism in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons from Public Health Critical Race Praxis.” Critical Race Theory is a transdisciplinary approach that explicitly addresses the role of race, emphasizes historical and contemporary social dynamics, focuses on communities in the margins, and can be embraced as an enduring iterative practice. Chandra L. Ford, PhD, Professor of Community Health Sciences at UCLA, is one of the originators of Public Health Critical Race Praxis — a public health framework that applies critical race theory in research and community-engaged practice. This event equipped our academic community with a specific empirical approach to anti-racism that challenges methods and results that uncritically reinforce health inequities.

The organization of these events drew collaboration from critical partners at the University of Kentucky. The Center for Health Equity Transformation, Center for Innovation in Population Health, Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, Center for Equality and Social Justice, an the Office for Institutional Diversity participated sponsoring this program. The involvement of multiple sectors in our academic community highlighted the importance of collaboration in addressing racism and health inequities.

While the initial focus of this program was local, we opened participation beyond UK. This resulted in 1,039 people registering for the events from all across the nation and more than 1,000 people accessing the recordings online. The ubiquity of online interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic allowed us to engage broad audiences and make the content widely available.

Finally, in June 2020, in a UKNow commentary titled “Law Enforcement Violence and the Construction of a Just Society” we challenged our academic community to use our academic tools in addressing racism, xenophobia, violence, and hate to support democracy, justice, inclusion, and peace. Again today, we want to challenge our community to actively contribute to ending all forms of structural racism. As academics, we are uniquely positioned to educate the next generation of problem solvers, advocates, scientists and elected officials. We can assure a climate of inclusion and belonging for all, and we can teach our students about the impact of structural racism. We can advocate for local, state, and national policies that secure human rights and civil rights protections. We can demand clearer and more effective standards for biomedical research that include constructs such as race, ethnicity, racism and discrimination. Together we can build a better future in Kentucky, one in which all people can have access to health as a human right.