Structural Racism, Health Inequities, and the Two-Edged Sword of Data: Structural Problems Require Structural Solutions

Front Public Health. 2021 Apr 15;9:655447. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2021.655447. eCollection 2021.


Analyzing the myriad ways in which structural racism systemically generates health inequities requires engaging with the profound challenges of conceptualizing, operationalizing, and analyzing the very data deployed-i. e., racialized categories-to document racialized health inequities. This essay, written in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 vigilante anti-democratic white supremacist assault on the US Capitol, calls attention to the two-edged sword of data at play, reflecting long histories of support for and opposition to white supremacy and scientific racism. As illustrated by both past and present examples, including COVID-19, at issue are both the non-use (Edge #1) and problematic use (Edge #2) of data on racialized groups. Recognizing that structural problems require structural solutions, in this essay I propose a new two-part institutional mandate regarding the reporting and analysis of publicly-funded work involving racialized groups and health data and documentation as to why the proposed mandates are feasible. Proposal/part 1 is to implement enforceable requirements that all US health data sets and research projects supported by government funds must explicitly explain and justify their conceptualization of racialized groups and the metrics used to categorize them. Proposal/part 2 is that any individual-level health data by membership in racialized groups must also be analyzed in relation to relevant data about racialized societal inequities. A new opportunity arises as US government agencies re-engage with their work, out of the shadow of white grievance politics cast by the Trump Administration, to move forward with this structural proposal to aid the work for health equity.

Keywords: anti-racism; data governance; ecosocial theory of disease distribution; health equity; politics of public health data; population health; public health monitoring; structural racism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Health Equity*
  • Humans
  • Racism*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • White People