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Should racism be treated as a public health issue? Experts explain pros and cons

Living In Colour: How anti-Black racism affects mental health
WATCH: Living In Colour — How anti-Black racism affects mental health

In Canada, there has been growing support to declare racism — specifically anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism — a public health issue in the wake of recent protests against police brutality.

On Monday, the Ottawa Board of Health unanimously voted to recognize racism and discrimination as a determinant of a person’s mental and physical health. Just last week, the Toronto Board of Health voted to recognize anti-Black racism as a public health crisis.

“Racism, discrimination and stigma are associated with poorer physical, mental and emotional health and greater mortality, making anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism and racism against minorities an important public health issue,” the Ottawa motion read.

READ MORE: Increasing calls for Ontario government to declare anti-Black racism public health crisis

Supporters say the recognition is long overdue and would give lawmakers fast-acting powers to implement special measures and reprioritize funds for resources to combat racism that affects physical and mental health.

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This science is not new. Two years ago, the Canadian Public Health Association released a statement urging Canadians to speak out against racism with a factoid explaining the negative health impacts of discrimination. The World Health Organization released its findings in 2005 that linked exposure to sexism, racism and poverty to mental health problems.

Ingrid Waldron, an associate professor at Dalhousie University, agreed. She said being excluded from resources and regularly subjected to inequities in the housing, employment and labour markets can have severe impacts “on the body and on the mind.”

The impact of anti-Black racism on health
The impact of anti-Black racism on health

“Racism is a social determinant of health in the same way that income is a social determinant of health and poverty and housing and employment,” she said. “Understand racism as a community issue that goes beyond just the individual.”

Waldron, whose research focuses on the health effects of environmental racism in African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities, noted scientific evidence dating back to 2009 that found a strong connection between stress caused by anti-Black racism and increased cortisol levels. She noted that can predispose a person to a whole host of chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure.

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Even if a person hasn’t personally experienced racism, Waldron said the community still feels the effects of present and past trauma that have manifested over time. Better known as intergenerational or historical trauma, that past and present exposure can create changes in a person’s body and cell membranes, she said.

“This is a real emergency, not only in terms of physical harm but the emotional harm that stays with Black people and Indigenous people to the point where they don’t want to call the police, for example, because they’re scared of the police,” Waldron said.

READ MORE: Toronto board of health unanimously votes to recognize anti-Black racism as public health crisis

Programs in health, health services and policies need to include racism in their training and need to be created for communities disproportionately impacted by it, she added.

“With Black and Indigenous communities and other communities of colour in Canada, one of the reasons they under-utilized health and mental health services is because they don’t feel that racism is seen as a valid health and mental health issue,” she said.

So, what if Canada treated racism as a public health emergency? What would happen then?

Anthony Morgan, human rights lawyer and manager of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit, said it’s best to think of it like a weather-related state of emergency.

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Toronto to re-prioritize city resources to improve social determinants of health
Toronto to re-prioritize city resources to improve social determinants of health

“The government always has the power to put out trucks and people to help clean our streets. But when they declare something an event in emergency, there are more resources and the processes tend to be accelerated to get the needed supports to our communities,” he said. 

Declaring racism a public health crisis would place “the appropriate amount of attention on the seriousness and pervasiveness of Black racism in a way that helps us all appreciate that it doesn’t just harm Black people but has reverberating impacts on all communities,” he said.

Ito Peng, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and director of its Centre for Global Social Policy, said typically, when a declaration is made, it triggers an immediate emergency response, reaction and policy from respective government systems.

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This could involve defunding police, making body cameras mandatory or requiring mental health workers to accompany officers for wellness checks and non-violent calls. Peng said these are all helpful, necessary steps — but they won’t end racism.

READ MORE: ‘From taking a knee to taking a stand’ — Why anti-Black racism in Canada can’t be ignored

“The challenge of framing this issue as a public health issue is that it reduces everything down to health, and in some ways, it masks the real problem,” she said.

“It doesn’t get to the heart of the problem because the heart of the problem is a much more complex set of inequalities. (Racism is) about social inequality. It’s about economic inequality. It’s about inequality in front of the law. It’s about social injustice.”

To end racism, Peng said systemic changes would need to be put in place that accompany the declaration that would, at a minimum, include changes to role of police in society and revamping education, infrastructure and urban planning to better support marginalized and lower-income communities.

Jagmeet Singh discusses how a “mixed approach” to defunding police would work
Jagmeet Singh discusses how a “mixed approach” to defunding police would work

Kathy Hogarth, associate professor at the University of Waterloo, echoed Peng’s sentiments.

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“Elevating (racism) in the public eye to a public health issue means we can now put the resources behind it. But what stopped us from putting resources behind it in the first place?” She said.

According to Hogarth, recent calls for action have been fuelled by public outrage following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

READ MORE: Black neighbourhoods in Toronto are hit hardest by COVID-19 — and it’s ‘anchored in racism’ — experts

Prior to that, she said there “wasn’t enough of an outcry” to pressure those in positions of power to implement changes. These movements work “hand in hand,” she said — but they can also prove unreliable.

“While I say it gives me hope, this is also one of the challenges of systemic change. If it only gets attention when it is in the public eye, what happens when the outcry is no longer there? What happens when the media attention dies? What happens when the protests end?” she said.

“Will it be sustained? We don’t know yet. We don’t know what will come of it yet but we know that it’s a step in the right direction.”