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NYC Health Commissioner Talks Racial Inequalities in Health

Mary T. Bassett ’74, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, argued that public health professionals have an important role to play in addressing systemic racial inequality in a talk held at the School of Public Health on Monday.

The discussion, which was introduced and moderated by School of Public Health Acting Dean David J. Hunter, was entitled “#BlackLivesMatter — A Challenge to the Medical and Public Health Communities” and focused on topics Bassett discussed in an article of the same name published in the New England Journal of Medicine this March.

Black Lives Matter, an activist movement against racial inequality in the United States that gained traction in 2014 following the non-indictments of white police officers who killed unarmed black men, provided the backdrop for Bassett’s speech on health disparities in the U.S.

Her article “aimed to encourage a critical dialogue and action around racism and health,” Bassett said, and was meant “to call on health professionals to engage the larger social movement that was spreading across the United States.”

Bassett said police violence against African Americans is a part of a much larger, systemic issue of racial inequality, of which disparities in health coverage are also a critical component.

“We all must be brave and use the term ‘racism’ in recognizing that the intent of the Black Lives Matter movement is to speak out about injustice more broadly, not only related to police violence,” Bassett said, noting that racial disparities in health coverage are disproportionately responsible for “taking black lives prematurely.”

Bassett identified a special responsibility for public health professionals to take on the issue of racial inequality in a direct manner.

“If we fail to explicitly talk about racism in health, especially at this time of public dialogue about race relations in this country, we may unintentionally bolster the status quo and enable the perpetuation of health inequities,” Bassett said.

Open to the public but attended primarily by affiliates of Harvard’s Longwood campus, Bassett’s talk lasted longer than an hour and featured a question-and-answer portion. After the discussion, several audience members said they found the talk accessible and relevant.

“My work is based on racial and ethnic health disparities and so these larger structural issues that we’re seeing take more of a prominent role on the national stage have always had an impact on the work that we’re doing,” said Catherine Duarte, a student at the School of Public Health.

“We need to name racism as a problem in promoting public health and thinking about anybody’s health,” said Sanjay T. Kishore, a student at Harvard Medical School. “We can’t shy away from calling it out.”

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