Milwaukee Said It First: Racism is a Public Health Crisis

By Audra D. S. Burch, New York Times

Members of the Wisconsin National Guard in the parking lot of United Migrant Opportunity Services in Milwaukee.
Joshua Lott for The New York Times

From cradle to grave, Black Milwaukeeans were suffering. The infant mortality rate was nearly three times that of white people. The life expectancy was about 14 years shorter, on average. Life in between offered its own hardships — from gaping disparities in education to income — officials realized years ago, in what was among the most racially segregated and inequitable cities in America.

The county executive at the time, Chris Abele, knew there was something insidious at work, something hard to tame or fix. He placed blame on centuries of deeply-rooted anti-Black racism — and the crushing chronic stress it caused. The result was remarkably different life experiences and health consequences for Black and white residents.

So Milwaukee tried something bold to fight the statistics. They declared racism a public health crisis, and vowed to combat it with the same vigor they would a disease outbreak. The declaration stitched together what might have seemed unconnected and publicly committed the city to a wide-ranging agenda aimed at addressing Milwaukee’s generational inequities.

It would not be easy or fast. Making the link between racism and health took some convincing, those involved in the designation said, as did persuading residents that racism extended well beyond name-calling and other overtly bigoted acts…

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