American Medical Association Declares Racism a Public Health Threat

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Nov 19, 2020

Racism kills. This we have always known. But more than ending or severely curtailing the lives of people of color, it’s also a public health threat, and now the American Medical Association (AMA) has declaratively said so. In a statement issued on November 16, the nation’s largest physician organization laid out its new policies identifying solutions to this growing and deadly threat.

According to the statement:

The new policy approved by the AMA, representing physicians and medical students from every state and medical specialty, opposes all forms of racism as a threat to public health and calls on AMA to take prescribed steps to combat racism, including: (1) acknowledging the harm caused by racism and unconscious bias within medical research and health care; (2) identifying tactics to counter racism and mitigate its health effects; (3) encouraging medical education curricula to promote a greater understanding of the topic; (4) supporting external policy development and funding for researching racism’s health risks and damages; and (5) working to prevent influences of racism and bias in health technology innovation.

“The AMA recognizes that racism negatively impacts and exacerbates health inequities among historically marginalized communities. Without systemic and structural-level change, health inequities will continue to exist, and the overall health of the nation will suffer,” said AMA Board Member Willarda V. Edwards, M.D., M.B.A. “As physicians and leaders in medicine, we are committed to optimal health for all, and are working to ensure all people and communities reach their full health potential. Declaring racism as an urgent public health threat is a step in the right direction toward advancing equity in medicine and public health, while creating pathways for truth, healing, and reconciliation.”

The AMA stressed that the recent statement is an explicit follow-up to its June “pledge to confront systemic racism and police brutality.”


In addition, the AMA is pushing for an end to racial essentialism—“the belief in a genetic or biological essence that defines all members of a racial category.” To do this, the organization is promising to collaborate with medical stakeholders across fields, including organizations led by people of color, to identify biased educational practices, develop recommendations to improve the current system and support research around anti-racist education. 

“The AMA is dedicated to dismantling racist and discriminatory policies and practices across all of health care, and that includes the way we define race in medicine,” board member Michael Suk said. “We believe it is not sufficient for medicine to be nonracist, which is why the AMA is committed to pushing for a shift in thinking from race as a biological risk factor to a deeper understanding of racism as a determinant of health.”

Dr. Jessica Shepherd, a Black OB-GYN in Dallas, told Business Insider that AMA’s declaration "is critical to address racial disparities in healthcare from the top down." 

"We fail to realize that there are so many things that occur at the systemic part of healthcare that if we don’t make changes such as the one we’re discussing now, then we’ll never really get to the heart of the problem," Shepherd said.  

In July, Colorlines reported that more than 1,000 health experts wrote to the director of the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding “ongoing and recurring acts of racism and discrimination” against Black employees. As Business Insider reported, "over the last year, a number of county and state authorities have also labeled racism a public health threat," listing "county councils in San Bernardino, California, and Montgomery [County], Maryland, as well as authorities in Michigan, Nevada, Cleveland Denver and Indianapolis" joining in. 

It’s clear that from maternal mortality to HIV to COVID-19, racism has historically cut short the lives of too many Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color in the U.S. This statement and its policies, however late, are a step in the right direction. 

Read the complete AMA statement here.