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Racism as a Public Health Crisis

Milwaukee's novel approach to combating racial inequity should inspire other cities

The Poor People's Campaign took a nationwide bus tour earlier this year to draw attention to the "real" national emergency of inequality. (Photo: 350.org/Twitter)

Racism is often viewed as an action performed by individuals. But even if we got rid of all America’s prejudiced individuals, racism would still exist in the systems they built.

Systemic racism, writer Jenee Desmond-Harris explains, refers to how racial disparities operate “in major parts of U.S. society: the economy, politics, education, and more.”

Racism, in other words, isn’t just someone using a racial slur. It’s also the poor schooling in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, the racial wealth gap, housing discrimination, mass incarceration, police killings of unarmed black and brown people, higher infant mortality rates for people of color, and unequal access to health care.

As governments struggle to address (or even acknowledge) these racial inequalities, officials in Milwaukee, Wisconsin decided to take a unique approach by declaring racism a public health crisis.

Milwaukee is one of the most racially unequal cities in the country, coming in at No. 2 last year on a list of “The Worst Cities for Black Americans” by 24/7 Wall Street, a financial news site. The report blamed Milwaukee’s discriminatory housing policies throughout the 20th century for the city’s current inequality.

Citing research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it noted that “16 of the 18 suburbs of Milwaukee County enacted restrictive housing covenants in the 1940s, many of which remained in effect into the 1960s and 1970s.” This segregation contributed to deep income and wealth inequality today.

Jessicah Pierre

Jessicah Pierre is the inequality media specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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