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Opinion | Michelle Williams

The broader, hurtful impacts of discrimination

Civil rights activist Tamika Mallory, who helped organize the Women’s March on Washington, has accused an American Airlines pilot of racial discrimination in kicking her off a flight.AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Much of the news most recently about discrimination in America has been focused on singular violent acts by police against African-Americans. Aside from these highly visible violent incidents, however, there is another broader issue, often unseen, but very much felt by multiple ethnic and racial groups. That is, we frequently do not recognize the serious long-term effects of various forms of discrimination and hurtful incidents on the health and economic outcomes of millions of individuals and their communities. And, as a nation, it would be for our common good to change how we talk about these broader sets of issues.

My colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, led by Robert Blendon, have conducted a far-reaching survey, in collaboration with NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, asking people from multiple ethnic and racial groups, including whites, about their experiences with discrimination. This includes the policies of employers, governments, and civic institutions, and also individual behaviors leading to members of minority communities being insulted and facing offensive comments because of their backgrounds.


A striking 60 percent of African-Americans say they have been unfairly stopped or unfairly treated by the police because they were black. Forty-five percent say they or a family member were unfairly treated by the courts. In addition, 32 percent say they have personally been discriminated against at a doctor’s office or health clinic.

Perhaps not surprising to those who face discrimination, the survey shows how pervasive it is. It cuts across more aspects of life than interaction with the police and courts. It affects the job you will be hired for, your likelihood of renting an apartment or buying a house, whether you will be able to vote in future elections, and whether you are less willing to see a doctor for needed care.


You might expect that these situations would go away after a minority, such as an African-American or Latino, reaches a certain socioeconomic status, but the opposite is true. Those with more education and with higher incomes tell us they face more discrimination in their lives.

David Williams of the Harvard Chan School has shown in multiyear studies that acts of discrimination lead to a type of stress that over the long term causes serious illnesses and even premature death. Other studies have suggested that these experiences negatively impact lifelong economic opportunities for these groups.

In addressing the health outcomes of individuals facing racial and ethnic discrimination, it is important to change the nature of the discussion we are having. We are led to believe, on one side, that this is an issue of political correctness, and on the other, that there is only a need to respond to individual instances of micro-aggression. But the long-term impact of these broad patterns of discrimination on health and economic outcomes must be our shared focus.

This comprehensive range of circumstances in the aggregate — the multiple incidents and institutional behavior — where people feel discrimination must be addressed.

As dean of a school of public health, I think it is imperative for us to spotlight the profound health implications of this inequity as a way to reframe the national discourse. The discussion must focus more clearly on the impact that discrimination has on all segments of American society and on the future of the country.


That discussion must involve a continued re-examination by institutions and individuals of these unacceptable discriminatory behaviors and the importance of educating the public as a whole of their consequences. It should be better understood by all how discrimination affects the very future of our nation.

If we cannot broaden the discussion, we will find ourselves in a situation where millions of people face serious health consequences — being very ill and often dying prematurely — or lack opportunity, resulting in many minority groups being unable to function effectively in America’s changing economy. Our country will be poorer and less just because of it.

Dr. Michelle A. Williams is dean of the faculty and professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.