Let’s Talk About Race And Health

By Tammy Johnson Oct 09, 2009

We don’t have a well-crafted message to deal with the immigrant issue right now.” Said the messaging expert at a national convening of health care advocates that I attended a year ago. So the response to the “problem” was no response. There is a problem. The problem is not immigrants, blacks or even working class and poor whites who fear losing what little they already have. The problem is the progressive movement’s silence around race. The entire country is having a conversation about race right now. But instead of directly addressing people’s fears and offering solutions, many progressives have chosen to disengage, effectively taking themselves out of the discussion. And that’s too bad because if you are not talking about race, you aren’t being heard by those who are. A recent article by the Washington Post, outlines the reasons civil rights and health advocacy groups duck the race issue in the health care debate. They went something like this: We could win this on the merits of the facts.” If that were true, the volumes of studies written on best medical practices would have won this war long ago. “A focus on racial disparities in the system could be political loser.” Well, we know for a fact that diverting our attention away from racial disparities kills, and that’s a big loser for individuals, families and communities that will continue to go untreated. Fewer than four in 10 white people favor changes in the system. Now that is actually a reason to tackle race head on. Because if you allow fears to fester, especially those based in racist assumptions, they don’t disappear, they grow. And over time, the silent treatment that progressives give race only validates the racism. The NAACP’s 880 Campaign and the efforts by the Campaign for Community Changes and others to engage a broader base of people in the debate should be applauded. But there is something more that we can do. If white people, and anyone else for that matter, want to have a discussion about race, well then let’s have at it! But let’s do it right. It’s been our experience at ARC that moving conversation from who is or isn’t a bigot, to what are the solutions that radically changes the systems that harm us all, is a game changer. People listen, they become engaged and why? Because most people want to end racism, they want to be part of the solution. But you can’t end racism, you can’t reach real solutions, you can’t be part of the raging debate of the issues of the day, if you don’t talk about race. Tammy Johnson is a RaceWire blogger and the Applied Research Center’s Director of Strategic Partnerships.