Panel Shares Insights on Racism and Public Health

Panel Shares Insights on Racism and Public Health

(Leslie Ellis, Dec. 10, 2020)

Laneeka “Nikki” Barksdale—a vivacious ballroom dancing star and  beloved mother of four, who also suffered from asthma—passed away this spring from COVID-19.

The 47-year-old Detroiter was one of more than 280,000 Americans who have died during the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) at an alarmingly higher rate than white people. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services data indicate, for example, that African-Americans make up 14 percent of the state population but 40 percent of the COVID-19-related deaths.

“Nikki should have had every opportunity to live a healthy life,” her sister-in-law Tawana Nettles-Robinson said. “Believe it or not, she is one of seven individuals I know personally to have died of COVID-19 this year.”

Nettles-Robinson—who serves as Trinity Health’s executive director of medical services for Detroit—recently joined a panel of experts to discuss this disparity during the “Racism: Public Health Crisis in BIPOC Communities” webinar. More than 100 people dialed in to the Nov. 16 event hosted by Women Confronting Racism and introduced by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

Women Confronting Racism works to help white women understand how their biases contribute to systemic racism.

The panelists explained that years of structural racism have made black and brown people in the United States more likely to have pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.

~Historically, people of color were denied mortgages in desirable neighborhoods. In turn, they were forced to live closer to sources of pollution that can cause pre-existing conditions like asthma or cancer and in denser urban areas where it’s more difficult to isolate.

~Black and brown people are less likely to have access to quality health care, healthy food and clean water. For example, water shutoffs—which are often concentrated in communities of color—can prevent people from washing their hands to prevent COVID-19, said panelist Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club.

~The mental and physical toll of existing as a person of color in a predominately white society—including fear of police violence—can lead to conditions including high blood pressure, insomnia, depression and a weakened immune system.

Ferndale Schools Board of Education Trustee Anna Ibrahim said she dialed in to the webinar to learn about racism’s health impacts and how she can use her privilege as a white woman to confront the crisis.

Ibrahim said panelist Kent Key, a health disparities researcher and faculty member at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, made a big impression on her.

“What truly surprised me was that Dr. Key is the first person I’ve encountered who has used the medical model to illustrate specifically how racism is a public health crisis,” she said. “By explaining the fight or flight response and showing an illustration of the entire body and how all of the body systems are impacted by chronic stress, he made that concept crystal clear.”

Ibrahim said she supports Ferndale Schools’ proclamation that racism is a public health crisis and will advocate for a health curriculum that explains how racism impacts the body.

As people begin to see areas of inequality, a great way to get involved is to stay informed, and to show up.

“On a local scale, a lot of the decisions, like people living right next door to hazardous facilities, are made in open rooms that people just don’t go to,” Onwenu said.  “So land zone use meetings, city council meetings, public health subcommittees. There was a meeting I went to with a car full of community members…and we got to the meeting and there were two city council members and a few staffers, and they all looked shocked because no one ever goes to those meetings. Six people caused people to be shocked. So what I’ll just say is a lot of these decisions happen on a local level.”

The panelists said there are many ways people can confront the crisis.

~Individuals can educate themselves about implicit bias, run for office, participate in local government meetings, donate to causes that support dismantling systemic racism, support minority-owned businesses, volunteer, and seek out friends and business partners of color.

~Businesses can implement human resources policies that promote equity, demonstrate their practices are environmentally safe, require implicit bias training for all employees and de-escalation training for security workers, purchase more goods and services from suppliers of color, and increase diversity among staff and leadership.

~Educators can reach out to students of color and lift them up, support historically black colleges, address technology gaps, create support groups for parents, teach the full history of black and brown people, and emphasize that activists are needed in all arenas, whether it’s business, art, education or medicine.

~Policy-makers can address water shutoffs, lead abatement, air pollution, infant mortality and maternal health; build solidarity between communities facing connected environmental issues; create buffer zones between industry and people; assess the health impact of policies before they’re enacted; reform law enforcement; institute health outcome measures for low-income patients; and declare racism is a public health crisis.

The real tragedy of COVID-19 is that many of the deaths could have been avoided if health disparities between white and BIPOC communities had been addressed all along, Nettles-Robinson said.

“We need people to know these are real families,” she said. “We believe the current system of care is currently failing communities of color.”

As Nettles-Robinson spoke, images of her sister-in-law Laneeka “Nikki” Barksdale displayed on the screen, showing a beautiful woman with a vibrant smile, affectionately hugging her young son as her daughter beams in the foreground.

“I’m going to ask individuals to use their privilege be anti-racist, not just non-racist. Take the lead to call racism out wherever you see it and demand accountability when it’s revealed,” Nettles-Robinson said. “I’m going to ask that you speak up as mothers and community leaders. Be brave in your discussions.”

The full “Racism: Public Health Crisis in BIPOC Communities” webinar is available to view on the Women Confronting Racism website, or watch here:

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