Public Health’s Role in Addressing Racism

A cardboard sign that says "end systemic racism."

DuBois Bowman

Dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health

Reflecting back on this past year, it has never been more apparent that racism is a public health crisis. The senseless and devastating deaths and injuries of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Jacob Blake, and countless other Black individuals once again highlighted how anti-Black violence and police brutality have a devastating impact on the health and well-being of Black communities. At the same time, COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color highlights long-standing systemic issues that we urgently need to address. 

Those of us committed to pursuing a healthier, more equitable world for all are acutely aware of the ways in which racism impacts the health and well-being of Black Americans and communities of color. Systemic racial inequities in our country shape many aspects of people’s lives and health—from the jobs they hold and the places they live, to the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they can buy, and the levels of stress they suffer because of their income, their personal safety, and the racism they may experience on a daily basis. 

A new year represents an opportunity for change and growth. This is a critical moment in which our nation has turned its attention to racism and pledged to address long-standing inequities in our society. Those of us in the field of public health can and should be leaders in these efforts. 

At the University of Michigan School of Public Health, we’ve been using our expertise and research to help the public understand how racism impacts health outcomes as well as the ways in which we can address this crisis to help improve the well-being of people of color. We’ve shared expertise through news outlets, on our school blog, and even through podcasts. I also coauthored an op-ed on this topic with Marschall Runge, dean of the University of Michigan Medical School.

As our faculty, staff, students, postdocs, and alumni continue their critical work and research in this area, we’ll continue to share our important insights and ways forward. In the new year, we look forward to airing a new season of our school’s Population Healthy podcast, which will focus on health equity through the lens of race in an effort to foster conversation about systemic racism and health disparities.

As we share our expertise widely, this is also a moment to look within. To understand racism in our country is to know that no institution is immune from its long-standing impacts, including higher education. At the School of Public Health, we’ve made steady progress on a number of fronts in our school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategic plan. However, it’s clear that while our DEI work remains important and must be sustained, there is a need for intentional, specific actions to address racism that go beyond the scope of our current DEI efforts. As dean of the school, this work is one of my highest priorities. 

In July, I formed a short-term anti-racism working group composed of students, staff, and faculty from across the school to help accelerate these efforts. In addition, many in our community have shared their thoughts on this work through statements, petitions, emails, conversations, participation on committees, and various other avenues. I have been reviewing and reflecting on this input in partnership with my team, and we are already pursuing a number of actions to help create transformative change at the school, including:

  • Expanding our anti-racist pedagogy
  • Investing in additional anti-racism training for our community
  • Completing a school-wide review of our admissions processes with a focus on equity (this began with a pilot to remove our GRE requirements for the Fall 2021 admissions cycle)
  • Developing additional pipeline programs with minority serving institutions
  • Launching a leadership speaker series with a commitment to uplifting diverse voices and discussing racism and health (you can listen to our first event here)
  • Pursuing additional funding to support research into racial health inequities

Although the year may be coming to an end, our work isn’t. In addition to the initiatives listed above, I’m working with a variety of community members across our school to plan and implement additional actions, which we will share in the coming months. Creating an anti-racist culture that promotes equity and inclusion will take time, as well as effort from everyone in our school community. I am committed to this long-term, necessary work, and I look forward to the changes we can create as we pursue a healthier, more equitable world for all. 

About the Author

Headshot of F. DuBois BowmanF. DuBois Bowman is dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a renowned expert in the statistical analysis of brain imaging data. His research has helped reveal brain patterns that reflect disruption from psychiatric diseases, detect biomarkers for neurological diseases, and determine more individualized therapeutic treatments. Bowman has served on advisory boards for NIH programs that target underrepresented minority undergraduate students at historically black colleges and universities and has led NIH diversity pipeline training programs.