Naming Racism

Dec 5, 2014, 7:00 AM, Posted by

Thomas LaVeist, PhD, is founding director of the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions, and the William C. and Nancy F. Richardson Professor in Health Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is the chair of the National Advisory Committee for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College

Yesterday I had Camara Phyllis Jones, PhD, MD, MPH, as guest lecturer for my seminar on health disparities. It was a homecoming of sorts for her. She and I first met in the early 1990s when I was a newly minted assistant professor and she was a PhD student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Jones’ work should be well known to readers of this blog. She has published and lectured on the effects of racism on health and health disparities for many years. She played a leading role in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s work on race, racism, and health in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.  And she was just elected president-elect of the American Public Health Association. She is a fantastic lecturer and often uses allegory to illustrate how racism affects health. 

About midway through her lecture, a student raised his hand and got her attention to ask a question about the utility of “naming racism.” My interpretation and rephrasing of his question—is it helpful to use the word racism or is the word so politically charged and divisive that it causes people to “tune you out?”

The student’s question raises a major challenge for those of us who seek to address health disparities. On one hand racism is fundamental to understanding why disparities exist and persist. I would go as far as to state that in most race disparities research, race is actually a proxy measure for exposure to racism. But, on the other hand, the word racism makes some people uncomfortable, causing them to become defensive or sometimes simply block out your message.  

I have not had many conversations with other race/health scholars about this issue, but I can’t imagine I am the only one who finds this a complex needle to thread.  Over the years I have received feedback and advice on both sides of this question. I have been told that I should use the word racism more in my lectures, and it has also been suggested to me that I should limit or eliminate use of the word. I have been told that I don’t use racism in my writing, but the fact is I have published about a half dozen articles with the word racism in the title. I suppose no matter how one communicates, they are always heard through the filter of the listener’s values and beliefs. If a listener believes that race is racism then using the word will communicate to that listener. If the listener believes racism is a thing of the past then the use of the word could stifle communication.

Conducting research and communicating about race and health is extremely complex. Ideally, advancing scientific discovery requires holding beliefs and ideas up to scrutiny and judging them to be correct or incorrect, dispassionately trusting the data to lead us to the truth.   But truth telling alone does not necessarily lead to persuasion. 

This brings to mind another interesting interaction I had in my class a few years ago. I had just completed a lecture about how race was a social and political construction and not a biological concept.  I pointed out how definitions of race in the United States have changed many times over the years and how people classified into one race group in the United States could be classified into different race groups in other countries. I pointed out that even if there were once genes that were found only in one race group (which I do not concede), that after several centuries of people from different race groups having children together those genes certainly would not still be contained only to one group.  I am certain I never used the word racism in the lecture. After class a student approached me tentatively. I asked her if she had a question or comment. She did. Her comment was, “I still believe race is biology.” 

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.