We need public health leadership for a just society
By Elva Yañez
The massacre in El Paso marks a moment in time that will be remembered for generations to come—not just by Mexicans and Mexican Americans but any group that suffers from racialized violence and lasting health, social, and economic impacts caused by white supremacy.
This act of domestic terrorism points our attention to our collective past, making clear that the recent changes in immigration policies and practices, as well as the normalization of virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric, are simply the latest chapter of an abhorrent history that has led to genocide, the institution of slavery, mass incarceration, deportation, and internment—all leaving illness, injury, and death in their wake.
The tragedies of El Paso and Gilroy are the predictable next steps in the white supremacist playbook, with emboldened actors bypassing the government agencies that enforce these oppressive policies and going directly to vigilante action against Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans through mass gun violence.
When government leaders stoke xenophobia and abuses people of color, it inspires individuals to carry out acts of violence like we saw last week.
As Goleen Samari wrote earlier this year, “It is more clear than ever that white supremacy is a public health issue.” And beyond those killed, injured, and devastated in these attacks, unchecked acts of hatred of ‘the other’ are harming the health, safety, and wellbeing of millions more.
The Health Impacts of White Supremacy and Racialized Violence
Dangerous border crossings, children being held in cages, immigration raids, and the sharp increase in physical and verbal violence against immigrants are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of harms to individual and community health.
The psychological fallout from these experiences has and will continue to result in longer-term conditions that affect health, safety, and wellbeing These include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression that can affect not only the traumatized individual but also be passed on to children and grandchildren, resulting in intergenerational trauma. Trauma also has the potential to reach deeper into communities that have witnessed and lived through these events, by reinforcing negative norms and behaviors and making community members feel unsafe in their neighborhoods.
Recent public health studies have examined the health effects of anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigration raids and increased pre-term births among Latinas. Researchers have linked this rhetoric to fear, which can have a toxic effect on the human body or lead to delays in seeking prenatal care, significantly contributing to pre-term births. Premature birth is the largest contributor to infant mortality and causes long-term health and developmental problems. Similar studies have examined the impacts of increased fear, anxiety, and anger among Latino youths and adults resulting in increased blood pressure, sleeping problems, psychological distress, and greater risk for obesity. These factors, combined with institutionalized racism, have been negatively impacting birth outcomes for African Americans for decades.
The recent carnage demonstrates that the toll of resurgent, explicit acts of white supremacy isn’t confined to undocumented individuals, their families, and communities. Population health and safety is put at grave risk when government leaders stoke xenophobia and use ‘otherizing’ rhetoric to refer to immigrants and people of color—Mexicans called rapists and murderers; Haitians, Salvadorans, and Africans said to be from “shithole” countries; and US Congressmembers who are women of color told to “go back” to their own countries.
And beyond any single policy decision or any singular violent act, communities suffer when fear and uncertainty reign. The trauma of separating families and arresting and deporting people who have long lived in the US or sought refuge here is creating a climate of fear that reverberates across the entire country.
The optimists among us hoped they’d seen the last of the days when the enforcers of supremacist policies meted out vigilante “justice” against people of Mexican descent who lived in a state that had previously been part of Mexico. But the legacy of racism and hatred lives on. It produced health inequities in the distant and not so distant past and is producing them right now.
Meanwhile, federal policymakers have so far refused to take action to limit access to guns—even the most dangerous military-style assault weapons, which are now being used by lone extremists in the white supremacist ecosystem who are reading the above-described policy shifts and demagoguery as a call to action.
Just as health inequities resulting from racial animus have been produced, they can be reversed.
Public health professionals have a responsibility to take action to prevent threats to population health, safety, and wellbeing, and rally the support of our allies.
We need comprehensive strategies to change the policies, practices, and norms that cause or contribute to the hate and violence associated with white supremacy—like the acceptance of violence and othering (stoking fear and resentment of people perceived as “outsiders,” usually based on race, ethnicity, or national origin), the normalization of white nationalism/white supremacy, and easy access to dangerous weapons capable of inflicting mass violence.
As a first step, I urge the field of public health to call out white supremacy as a public health crisis and elevate the data that supports this analysis. Then we need to take collective action to change the political environment out of which this revival of overt white supremacy and its toxic policies, practices, and norms emerged.
Public health interventions can and must stem the tide of violence while also dismantling systems of oppression. We need comprehensive gun control policies and the reversal of anti-immigrant policies that have been implemented at government agencies ranging from Housing and Urban Development to Homeland Security. We should also advocate for measures to address the true vectors of senseless mass violence targeting people of color, religious minorities, LGTBQ people, and other historically oppressed groups.
To create lasting change, we need to go upstream, focus on root causes, and advance comprehensive strategies, from building the organizing skills of individuals to building power within communities and working across sectors for fundamental policy and norms change. Prevention Institute’s Spectrum of Prevention tool helps identify effective, multi-level approaches to create community environments where racist hate and violence are less likely to occur.
Then, to truly heal the trauma communities are experiencing, we’ll need to invest time and support working with community members to mend the social fabric and sense of belonging that enables people to thrive.
When businesses, schools, faith communities, athletic leagues, government, community-based organizations, and other sectors take action together, dramatic shifts are possible.
White supremacists have heeded the call to action they hear in this political moment. It’s time for the rest of us to align on the right side of history—honoring our interdependence and rich diversity—and take up this call to action to stand against hate and violence, and for health, safety, and wellbeing for all people.
Organizations and Resources for Fighting Against Hate
Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience framework
Countering the Production of Inequities: Ensuring the Opportunity for Health for All
Families Belong Together
Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society
March for Our Lives
National Immigration Law Center
Recommendations to prevent gun violence
Public Health Awakened
Public Health Institute statement on white nationalism, gun violence
The spread of hate and racism: Confronting a growing public health crisis
United We Dream
Elva Yañez is the director of health equity at Prevention Institute.
Photo courtesy of the El Paso Strong Facebook group.