CDC Employees Call on Agency to Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis

© Tami Chappell/Reuters Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, Ga.

More than 1,000 employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have signed a letter calling on the agency to declare racism a public health crisis and to address “ongoing and recurring acts of racism and discrimination” against the organization’s black employees.

“At CDC, we have a powerful platform from which to create real change,” the letter , obtained by NPR, reads. “By declaring racism a public health crisis, the agency has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the power of science to confront this insidious threat that undermines the health and strength of our entire nation.” 

The letter, addressed to CDC Director Robert Redfield and dated June 30, cites the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, as well as COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on the black community —  data, though incomplete, suggests black and Latino people in the U.S. are at least two times more likely than white people to die from COVID-19 and three times more likely to get sick — as “just the most recent and tragic symptoms of the long-festering disease of racial discrimination and oppression in the United States.”

The failure to address racism’s relationship to health problems is a key reason that the United States has seen little progress in addressing disparate care over the past 50 years, the letter says.

The authors call for change within the agency, acknowledging decades of “well-meaning, yet under-funded” diversity and inclusion efforts that have yielded “scant progress in addressing the very real challenges Black employees experience at CDC” including a “lack of inclusion in the agency’s senior ranks and leadership pipeline programs,” a “pernicious old boy/girl network that stifles Black talent and blocks our opportunities for professional advancement” and a “pervasive and toxic culture of racial aggressions, bullying and marginalization.”

The letter outlines seven demands for change, including declaring racism a public health crisis in the U.S., diversifying senior leadership — black employees represent only 10% of higher-ups, the letter says — and addressing the CDC’s “toxic culture of racial discrimination” through mandatory implicit bias and culture sensitivity education training for all staff.  

After the letter was sent to Redfield, it was circulated among the CDC’s 11,000 employees for signatures. Nine percent of the workforce had signed as of Sunday, NPR reported, with signatures from at least one division head and 300 anonymous employees. Any current CDC employee could sign the letter.

In a statement to NPR, a CDC spokesman acknowledged that Redfield received the letter and responded to it, adding, “CDC is committed to fostering a fair, equitable, and inclusive environment in which staff can openly share their concerns with agency leadership.”

Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones , who served as a medical officer at the CDC for 14 years and remains in contact with current employees, told NPR her understanding is that Redfield’s response did not address the specific calls for change in the letter. 

“I find that disheartening and disrespectful,” she said.

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