Racism and Health

Inequities across our nation have their roots in discrimination.

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Understanding and addressing the impact of structural racism on health is essential to building equity in health.

Racism is the reason for large, sustained health inequities in the United States. Four overview articles in this month’s Health Affairs orient the reader to the complex relationship between racism and health. Other articles provide new evidence, analysis, and narratives on the topic.

Our history is filled with policies, from zoning codes to lending rules, specifically established to promote and maintain segregation.

Racism and its associated injustices have created barriers for people of color since the beginnings of our nation. We see its effects in all of our systems, from unequal medical care to discrimination in housing, employment, education, and the justice system—and beyond.  

How does racism affect health?

Research shows that this history of individual and structural racism spanning generations denies opportunity to people of color and robs them of their physical and mental health. The life expectancy of people of color is often a decade or more shorter than their White neighbors just a few blocks away. They face a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and mental illness. And babies born to Black women are more than twice as likely to die in the first year of life as babies born to White women.

These health inequities, and often the diseases themselves, stem in part from the stress of being silenced, ignored, oppressed, and targeted for violence.

In connection with past and current Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) programs aimed at reducing health inequities and advancing health equity, this collection includes research findings and perspectives on the connections between race, racism and health.

To reach a Culture of Health, we must be honest about the fact that too many people in the United States start behind, and stay behind, because they don’t have the same opportunities as others. If we don’t focus on and tackle structural racism, we simply can’t make progress toward health equity in America.

Resources for the Field

Achieving Health Equity

In a Culture of Health, everyone has the opportunity to live a healthier life, no matter who we are, where we live, or how much money we make.

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Read the AJPH article

Racism shapes virtually every aspect of life, opportunity, and well-being. It harms individuals and hurts the health of our nation by unfairly lifting up some and oppressing others. It is also the driving force of social determinants of health, including education, housing, and employment.

Read the AJPH article authored by RWJF staff

Editor's Pick

Understanding and Mitigating Health Inequities—Past, Current, and Future Direction 

Eliminating health disparities will require a movement away from disparities as the focus of research and toward a research agenda centered on achieving racial equity by dismantling structural racism. Perspectives from RWJF Alumna Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, President and CEO Richard Besser, and Trustee David Williams.

Read the NEJM article

Related Content

Featured Program: Forward Promise

Promoting the Health of Boys and Young Men of Color

This RWJF initiative aims to promote opportunities for boys and young men of color to heal, grow, and thrive in the face of chronic stress and trauma.

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A Humbling Moment

In a USA Today op-ed, Richard Besser, RWJF’s president and CEO, discusses changes that the Foundation is making to its annual Sports Award program to more clearly recognize racism and discrimination as factors in health.

Read the op-ed

Featured Resource

Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity

The Ferguson Commission focused on guiding the St. Louis region in charting a new path toward healing and positive change after the death of Michael Brown, Jr. Their work resulted in a guide for communities needing to heal from racial truama.

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