Racism and Public Health: Learning from the Past to Improve the Future
The twin pandemics of systemic racism and COVID-19 have increased academic attention to the ways in which intended public health measures can create, perpetuate, and exacerbate harm in communities of color.
However, racism was a public health issue long before 2020. In the early 1900s, during the first bubonic plague outbreak in America, public health officials in San Francisco unjustly targeted quarantine, eradication, and vaccination measures to the city’s Chinese immigrant population, believing that they were the source of the disease. In the early 1970s, after decades of denying that Black people could have asthma, scientists and health practitioners argued that alarmingly high asthma rates in Black urban communities were a direct result of Civil Rights protests, not a consequence of segregation, redlining, environmental racism, and unequal healthcare. Using these two lesser known historical examples of racism in twentieth century American public health, Dr. Ijeoma Kola advocates for a contemporary approach to addressing racism in public health that is rooted in knowledge of the past, and offers suggestions for healthcare practitioners, educators, policymakers, and students for how to more meaningfully engage in anti-racist public health work.
Dr. Ijeoma Kola is a historian of public health, content creator, and champion for Black women’s health and education. She is a postdoctoral research fellow in the program in Health, Humanities, and Society at the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values at the University of Notre Dame. Her research explores intellectual and cultural understandings of health and Blackness in the 20th century, and she is currently working on a book project on the history of asthma in Black urban America. She is the founder and executive director of Cohort Sistas, a non-profit organization that supports Black women and nonbinary people pursuing doctoral degrees by providing much-needed resources, mentorship, and community. Outside of academia, Dr. Kola uses compelling storytelling and imagery to create educational, inspirational, and lifestyle content that reaches over 250,000 people across social media platforms. A graduate of Columbia University and Harvard University, Dr. Kola and her family now split their time between South Bend, Indiana and Nairobi, Kenya.