Systemic Racism Continues to Cause Preventable Deaths

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Aug. 4, 2023 – A new study indicates that systemic racism, which has spread into nearly every county in the U.S., continues to result in preventable deaths of people of color.

Nationwide, Black people, American Indian people, and Alaska Native people were more likely to die of any cause, compared to white people. Meanwhile, Asian people and Latino people had lower risks of death from any cause, compared to white people.

The findings were published this week in The Lancet. Researchers analyzed death certificate information and county-level population characteristics from two national databases for the years 2000 to 2019. The combined information was used to estimate how many deaths could be linked to any of 19 different causes based on a person’s age, sex, county of residence, and racial-ethnic group.

Noticeable differences along racial and ethnic lines appeared in nearly all of the more than 3,000 counties studied. American Indian and Alaska Native people were more likely than white people to die of skin and subcutaneous diseases, of HIV/AIDS, or of other sexually transmitted infections. 

Black people were more likely than white people to die of diabetes complications, kidney disease, maternal or neonatal disorders, HIV/AIDS, or other sexually transmitted infections.

“The consistency of these patterns strongly suggests shared root causes and highlights the widespread, perpetual, and negative impact of systemic racism on health,” said researcher Laura Dwyer-Lindgren, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of health metric sciences at the University of Washington, in a statement.

In 2021, the CDC declared racism a public health crisis because communities of color were being affected more by COVID-19. At the time, the CDC noted that “over generations, these structural inequities have resulted in stark racial and ethnic health disparities that are severe, far-reaching and unacceptable.”

In this latest study, the only cause of death that ranked higher among white people than among other races and ethnicities was neurological disorders, which are diseases that affect the brain and nervous system. 

For all people, heart disease and cancer were the two top causes of death.

“The time for intervention was yesterday,” said Ali Mokdad, PhD, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington, in a statement. “Every day that goes by without equitable health care, better programs, and new policies, the U.S. records more unnecessary deaths, especially from diseases that are preventable.”