The intersectionality of race and health has always existed, but it has rarely been acknowledged by society at large.

Then suddenly, after years of passivity, 21 states – including Colorado – have declared racism a public health emergency. Now, as encouraging as this may seem, the longterm potency of this kind of performative politics is yet to be proved. 

For most white Americans, racial justice is a new area of concern – something they really just became aware of. The vast majority of white people have typically believed that racism is either a) long gone, or b) completely disconnected from a person’s health and only occurs in isolated pockets of society. This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

State Sen. Rhonda Fields

Systemic racism touches every facet of our culture and therefore, underrides ALL of our institutions. From policing, to housing, to health care, everything is inundated with insidious biases that have been allowed to fester.

Directly or implicitly, everyone has been sold the lie that people of color are less-than, one-dimensional or monochromatic. Whether it’s in the form of a criminal, drug addict, athlete, welfare queen or diva, society has painted us with a grossly limited palate. And in turn, this has created a system that doesn’t see us as whole people. 

So when an epidemic of biblical proportions sweeps across the world, overwhelming our medical system and decimating the economy, existing inequalities are rapidly pushed to the surface.

In fact, according to recent reports, Black and Latino Americans are not only more likely to become severely ill from the coronavirus, but they are also more likely to lose their jobs and homes in the downturn.

This is a far cry from the narrative that government officials and mainstream media pundits had at the beginning of the outbreak – calling the coronavirus “the great equalizer” and touting the disease’s transcendence of race, age, wealth, or prestige. 

I beg to differ. 

Pandemics disproportionately impact socially marginalized groups in the same way that climate change and recessions do – mainly by having people of color live in society’s basement when the tsunami comes crashing in. 

Privilege is a natural insulator. It gives you padding that protects you from the harshest, most destructive consequences of any given situation. 

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So when something happens, you have financial resources, family connections, job flexibility, good health insurance, stable housing, sanitary living conditions, or at least society’s belief that you are to be trusted. This means that while painful, you are in a position that will lessen the degree of damage done and improve how quickly you can recover. 

Black and brown folks have far less insulation. They are more likely to experience poverty after years of gentrification and redlining, more likely to have pre-existing conditions from inadequate access to health care and more likely to be killed by law enforcement due to rooted prejudices stretching back to this country’s inception.  

Believe me, racism is alive and well, and it has been killing people for a long time.

Far before the pandemic, Black and brown people were dying from treatable diseases at alarmingly uneven rates – experiencing worse health outcomes than Caucasians in nearly every category, regardless of socioeconomic status.

But this issue has often been ignored or blamed on other factors, with some even speculating that certain races must have a weaker, more illness-prone biological makeup (a belief I won’t even begin to get into). 

Yet as a brutal virus wreaks havoc around the globe, there is no denying how these longstanding disparities shape public health.

So yes, it is time to shine an unyielding light on this reality once and for all and declare racism a public health emergency. But simply naming it won’t fix the issue. It will take true commitment and honest, consistent effort for any real change to happen. This is where the heartbreaking doubt comes in….

Right now, racial justice has gone mainstream. Once shunned by the white establishment, the Black Lives Matter Movement has been adopted by liberal America, with hashtags littering social media, signs hanging up in hip coffee houses and murals painted on the streets of gentrified neighborhoods.

In one way, this is encouraging, but what happens when white attention wanes? What happens when national focus is shifted elsewhere? If history has taught us anything, it’s that white sympathy for Black justice is fleeting. 

Real change is unglamorous. Ninety-five percent of it occurs off the streets and in civic settings, without TV cameras or fanfare. Is white America ready for that? Are they ready to actually risk something of their own?

Naming the injustice isn’t enough; we need everyone to roll up their sleeves and make drastic changes to policy and laws. We need action, not just words. Because otherwise, it’s all just lip service. 

Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, represents Colorados 29th Senate District.

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