Structural racism and supporting black lives — The role of health professionals


On July 7, 2016, in our Minneapolis community, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in the presence of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. Acknowledging the role of racism in Castile’s death, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton asked rhetorically, "Would this have happened if those passengers [and] the driver were white? I don’t think it would have." Such incidents are tragic — and disturbingly common. Indeed, in recent weeks, our country has witnessed the well-publicized deaths of at least three more black men at the hands of police: Terence Crutcher, Keith Scott, and Alfred Olango.

Disproportionate use of lethal force by law-enforcement officers against communities of color is not new, but now we increasingly have video evidence of the traumatizing and violent experiences of black Americans. Structural racism — a confluence of institutions, culture, history, ideology, and codified practices that generate and perpetuate inequity among racial and ethnic groups — is the common denominator of the violence that is cutting lives short in the United States.

The term "racism" is rarely used in the medical literature. Most physicians are not explicitly racist and are committed to treating all patients equally. However, they operate in an inherently racist system. Structural racism is insidious, and a large and growing body of literature documents disparate outcomes for different races despite the best efforts of individual health care professionals. If we aim to curtail systematic violence and premature death, clinicians and researchers will have to take an active role in addressing the root cause.

Hardeman RR, Medina EM, & Kozhimannil KB. Structural racism and supporting black lives — The role of health professionals. New England Journal of Medicine; 2016, 375:2113-2115. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1609535


  • Rachel R Hardeman
  • Eduardo M Medina
  • Katy Backes Kozhimannil


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