California is at a crossroads in closing the racial health gap

June 3rd, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has put California at a crossroads, disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities and exposing what many of us have known for a long time - that systemic racism contributes directly and significantly to illness and shorter lives in communities of color. Now we must decide, as a state, if and how we will address these structural issues, face discomfort humbly and commit to true justice and equity.

The racial health gap has been well-documented for years and cuts across most health issues. It starts with infant mortality (where Blacks babies are twice as likely to die than white babies), extends through childhood (where children of color are more likely to suffer and die from chronic illnesses, such as asthma), and continues through the end of life (where Black men die seven years earlier than white men). This is to say nothing of the education, opportunity and wealth gaps that drive physical, mental and economic health outcomes.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control declared racism a serious public health threat due to these persistent health challenges. Thirty-one cities and states have agreed, declaring racism a public health crisis. These public admissions mark a critical first step in advancing health equity and racial justice through the allocation of financial resources and strategic action.

With a state budget surplus of more than $75 billion, the California legislature is proposing a necessary investment of $100 million a year for nonprofit organizations to promote health equity and racial justice as part of its broader investments in public health. The groundbreaking California Health Equity and Racial Justice Fund could be used to address fundamental issues like affordable and safe housing, healthy food and water access, economic stability, equitable education and childcare, preventing community violence, and reducing youth involvement in the criminal justice system. Bold and innovative projects and partnerships are needed to change statewide institutional, governance, and data systems for racial justice. So are community programs that have the community trust and dedication necessary to build power and reduce the factors responsible for the unequal burden of leading causes of death and illness among communities of color in California.

The Health Equity and Racial Justice Fund is supported by almost 200 public health and equity organizations and advocates throughout the state who want to root out systemic racism and correct health disparities in underinvested communities.

I applaud the legislature for their proposal and for filling a void in the Governor's budget on these critical issues.

California is at a crossroads, and I'm grateful that our state legislature is moving us down the right path in support of deep investment in health equity and racial justice.

- Chet P. Hewitt, President and CEO - The Center at Sierra Health Foundation