Dear CDC: Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis, Now

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Jul 13, 2020

As COVID-19 cases spike, again, in various cities around the country, 1,007 staff members from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) signed a letter calling for the federal organization to address "ongoing and recurring acts of racism and discrimination" against Black employees, NPR reported Monday (July 13). This call-to-action comes on the heels of the New York Times’ July 5 report around COVID-19’s grave and unequal impact on Black and Latinx communities.

Directly addressing the CDC’s director Robert R. Redfield, the signers highlight this year’s killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery before declaring: “Within the Black community, the pain is palpable. Fresh wounds inflicted in cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Louisville serve as raw and persistent reminders that our lives and our loved ones remain vulnerable targets of race-based discrimination and violence.”

To tighten the focus on the people who work for the CDC and the lack of alarm-sounding by the agency itself, the public health experts continued: 

“We are hurt. We are angry. We are exhausted. And ultimately, we fear that, despite the global protests, little will be done to address the systemic racism we face each and every day. 

At CDC, we have a powerful platform from which to create real change. By declaring racism a public health crisis, the agency has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the power of science to confront this insidious threat that undermines the health and strength of our entire nation. 

Yet CDC must clean its own house first.”

Such a publicly biting letter to one’s boss is rare in the scientific community, but with 9 percent of the agency standing in solidarity with each other, and growing, regardless of race, according to NPR, the CDC might want to take note. In response, a CDC spokesperson confirmed that Redfield received the letter and responded to it, and told NPR the "CDC is committed to fostering a fair, equitable, and inclusive environment in which staff can openly share their concerns with agency leadership."

In doing so, the signees listed “7 Acts of Change” with “Declare racism a public health crisis in the United States” as the very first demand. Other asks include that the CDC address its “toxic culture of exclusion” and to dismantle barriers to success for Black employees, among other things.

As the letter can speak for some current CDC employees, former employees have expressed their dismay at the agency’s fumbles and silence from afar.

“I think that it’s telling that here I am, sitting on the outside, a former CDC employee, and I’ve been able to scoop the agency […] in the data that I’ve been able to publish on COVID-19’s impact on African Americans,” Greg Millett, amfAR’s vice president and director of public policy told NPR. "CDC has still not really come up with anything meaningful about what’s taking place in Black and Brown communities around COVID-19. That to me is shameful, and shows that the scientists who are there who can do that work are not necessarily being empowered to do that work.”

To read the letter in full, click here.