ATLANTA — Former Centers for Disease for Control and Prevention employees are calling out the health institute on the issue of racism.
Two doctors and a former CDC administrator told Channel 2 anchor Lori Wilson that the Centers must declare racism a public health crisis and address internal concerns from employees of color.
“It’s a missed opportunity for CDC not to declare racism on a public health issue,” said Dr. Greg Millett, who spent 12 years at the CDC working in the division of HIV and AIDS prevention.
“You cannot prune the weed; you have to get at it from its root, and racism is the root cause of racial disparities and health outcome,” said Dr. Camara Jones, who served as the Centers' research director on social determinants of health and equity for 14 years.
And Carlton Duncan, a former deputy chief operating officer, who spent 35 years at the Centers, said he’s seen employees' opportunities limited because of the color of their skin, including his own.
“A lot of folks that you know consistently ask, ‘Well, you know, why now? Why are you doing it now?’ And my response is, ‘You know, if not now, when?’” Duncan asked.
These former employees told Wilson they want it to be clear that the CDC is an amazing institution with many opportunities to make our world a healthier place. They said they must speak up because the wellness of too many is at risk for the health impacts of racism to be ignored.
They’re going public in this moment as people across the country are having more honest conversations about racial disparities across all facets of life. Diabetes, high blood pressure, pregnancy related deaths and now COVID-19 have become the latest examples of a racial divide.
It’s why the American Public Health Association and a growing number of states, cities and counties, including DeKalb County, have declared racism a public health crisis. Former CDC employees say the Centers must do more than name disparities, including committing resources to understanding racism’s role in public health.
“We need to say that racism is not only the root cause of the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 (on) communities of color, but it underlies all of these racial health disparities,” Jones said.
The CDC would not do an interview with Wilson for this story, but by email a spokesperson stated that employees “are encouraged to demonstrate cultural humility in their relationships with those we serve, including in the work (the) CDC does every day with communities disproportionately impacted by long-standing health inequities.”
Beyond health disparities
“There are so many causes of poor health, for which we see very strong racial disparities,” said Dr. Lorna Thorpe, who is with the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
Thorpe is part of a team that is looking at disparities' impact on health. Their project is the City Health Dashboard. The dashboard shows health outcomes compared to other data, like segregation, unemployment, crime, graduation rates and other issues that have disproportionately plagued Black Americans.
“Very soon you start to see similar areas that have more segregation, potentially less opportunity and worse health outcomes such as life expectancy,” said Thorpe of the data.
The NYU researchers have looked at 17 Georgia cities, including Atlanta. In Atlanta they found 22% of residents in the affluent Paces neighborhood spend at least 30% of their income on housing costs. Compare that to the disenfranchised English Avenue neighborhood, where 49.8% of residents spend at least 30% of their income on housing. That’s well above NYU’s national average. NYU found that life expectancy is also drastically different in the two neighborhoods. The average life span of a Paces resident is 87.2 years, while in English Avenue it’s 63.6. That’s a difference of more than 23 years.
Jones said evidence of the correlation between socioeconomic disparities and poor health outcomes is exactly why CDC must dedicate resources to understanding racism’s role.
“If we want to do something about it, then we can’t just document that these things are happening and attribute the cause to race,” Jones said. “No, if we want to do something about it, (then) we need to go deeper and figure out why.”
Former CDC employees fear denying people of color opportunities within the Centers may be part of the problem. Millett said he saw it firsthand.
“Those who wanted to do more work on race and racism, that work was somewhat discouraged if not did not necessarily get the implicit approval,” Millett said.
Duncan said he was denied opportunities, too, when he was passed up for a promotion.
“I wasn’t considered at all for the position. So, at that point time, that’s when I decided I was going to address the issue,” he said.
Duncan quit and filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Complaint against the CDC. He said he regrets settling the complaint and now fears it was his chance to expose discrimination.
“I should have taken it to the administrative judge, let them make a decision. It could have been public,” Duncan said.
He was worried about paying hefty attorneys' fees if he lost the complaint, and that motivated him to take a settlement.
The CDC did not comment on Duncan’s situation, but a spokesperson said by email that the CDC is “committed to creating a diverse work environment that fosters appreciation and mutual respect for each employee. Ensuring diversity helps create a positive work environment where all employees have the opportunity to pursue their potential and maximize their contributions to CDC′s mission.”
But Duncan said he doesn’t regret the decades he worked at the CDC because it was a job he loved with a mission he still believes in.
“That this is not intended to, you know, kick CDC while it’s down,” Duncan said. “This is an opportunity to take advantage of to improve CDC.”
Full statement from the CDC:
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strives to foster a fair, equitable and inclusive environment where individuals can openly share their concerns with agency leadership. We are committed to creating a diverse work environment that fosters appreciation and mutual respect for each employee. Ensuring diversity helps create a positive work environment where all employees have the opportunity to pursue their potential and maximize their contributions to (the) CDC′s mission. CDC employees also are encouraged to demonstrate cultural humility in their relationships with those we serve, including in the work (the) CDC does every day with communities disproportionately impacted by long-standing health inequities, which the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted. (The) CDC’s public health mission and workplace commitment are inextricably linked, and (the) CDC’s leadership team has expressed its strong commitment to promoting health equity through our programs and science.
“CDC leaders have met with—and will continue to meet with—employees to listen to their feedback and adjust plans, as needed. (The) CDC is using various channels through which to inform and gain input from employees as we move forward on this important work.”
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