February is a time to reflect on and honor contributions made by African Americans. It’s also a time to discuss the critical work we, as a society, should be doing year-round to address structural racism and its effect on Black communities. This is especially important as the country reckons with continued anti-Black racism, including concerted efforts to end progressive conversations about race through violence and legislation that would curtail how race and American history are taught and discussed in schools.

Centering Black voices

As we work to increase health equity and dismantle structural racism, centering Black communities is a fundamental need. Race plays a critical role in how people experience the world and, in many cases, shapes people’s life outcomes: Fifty-two percent of Black adults say their race is extremely important to how they think about themselves. And research shows racial bias can affect health and access to health care and contributes to health disparities among Black people. Further, long-standing mistrust in health care systems in the United States stemming from both historic and contemporary experiences with medical mistreatment and bias puts Black communities at increased risk for negative health outcomes.

Structural racism is entrenched in the institutions of this country, and research institutions are no exception. Health and social determinants researchers have a role to play in addressing this. Any steps toward dismantling structural racism and addressing the hundreds of years of intentional inequities and their residual effects should include meaningfully and authentically engaging with Black communities throughout the research process—and, critically, as an integral part of the research team—and ensuring they have a voice in the development of solutions.

Critical work underway by Policies for Action researchers

As part of an effort to build the evidence base that will help dismantle structural racism, Policies for Action funded a new cohort of researchers charged with investigating public policy impacts on racial equity and racial justice while also engaging the communities most directly affected. With focuses including reparations, the racial wealth gap and Black infant mortality, the below projects will be critical to both helping address the impacts of structural racism on Black communities and centering Black voices in that work:

  • George Mason University, led by John Earle, will evaluate how the Community Reinvestment Act affects economic outcomes for Black and Hispanic people. The project will distinguish outcomes by gender to account for intersectional inequality.
  • Howard University, led by Gerald Daniels and San Francisco State University, led by Venoo Kakar, will examine the impact of student debt forgiveness policies on racial wealth gaps, particularly Black-white and Hispanic-white wealth gaps.
  • The Praxis Project Inc., led by Xavier Morales and Berkeley Media Studies Group, led by Lori Dorfman, will examine the jurisdictions that have declared racism as a public health crisis to determine how proponents frame their work, how community stakeholders and media have received the declaration, and whether such declarations lead to concrete government action to dismantle racism and invest in community health and well-being.
  • The Racial Justice Coalition, led by Robert Thomas and Tamarie Macon, will study the reparations process underway in Asheville and Buncombe County, North Carolina. The study will evaluate Black residents' perceptions of and desires for implementation of the reparations policy and how well the process reaches its stated goals.
  • The University of Alabama, led by David Albright and Natalie Malak, will examine how Alabama’s pilot project on reducing infant mortality affects infant mortality in the Black community.

Beyond Black History Month

Though Black History Month is a time of reflection, the real-world consequences of structural racism are constant and enduring, and so, too, should be the work of understanding and dismantling racism. Thus, it is critical that we extend these reflections beyond this time of year and pair them with authentic work to center Black voices, engage Black communities at every step of the research process and produce meaningful, solutions-oriented evidence.

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