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Science and Conscience Reveal How Persistent Racism Harms Health

October 30, 2017
Dr. Nancy Krieger, Professor of Social Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, will present "Scientific racism, embodiment & fighting for health equity: Black Health Matters" during the Forum on Sunday, November 12 at 10:15 a.m., as part of the third annual Anne Berry Bonnyman Symposium themed “Is Inequality Bad for Our Health?”  One of the most highly cited researchers in her field, Dr. Krieger has been a faculty member at Harvard for 22 years and a powerful, persuasive advocate for social justice and public health. 

Nancy Krieger’s awareness about racial inequities developed quite early. “As the child of two doctors, I found it curious that the ever-present bandages advertised as `flesh-toned’ didn’t match the skin color of many people,” Dr. Krieger shared during a recent interview.  Her insatiable curiosity led her to pursue a Ph.D. in Social Epidemiology, with a thesis that was a groundbreaking measurement and analysis of how persistent racism is a cause of health disparities in the African American community. It set the basis for her lifelong work on how social inequality in its many forms produces health inequities– meaning unfair, unnecessary and preventable differences in health status across social groups – and why it is we must learn history and strive for health equity.

“People literally embody, biologically, their societal and ecological context, for good and for bad,” she explained. “It’s dangerous and negligent to discount or dismiss how risk of disease is socially structured.”  She found that for generations, the medical and public health establishment by and large has ignored or downplayed the impact of racism and economic deprivation on people’s health, within and across generations, and instead has wrongly attributed health disparities to heredity or lifestyle. Over 20 years of study has been instrumental in documenting the health impacts of systemic racism and economic inequality on those who disproportionately bear the burden of cancer, cardiovascular disease, poor birth outcomes, early death, and mortality due to firearms and caused by the police.

When asked about the breadth of her research, Dr. Krieger noted, “Science as a tool is powerful, and scientific literacy is an essential part of building a healthier and fairer society. But we need go keep our consciences and curiosity honed too.”

Dr. Krieger’s lectures, well attended by both scholars and activists, are punctuated by a sense of history and purpose, backed up by statistical rigor and compelling research. Her classroom is full of her humor, insight, and energy as well, with many illustrations taken from other disciplines and the arts. It is a certainty that her presence at this year’s Symposium will provide a thoughtful perspective into today’s challenging social inequalities in health – and what we can do to advance health equity.