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CDC employees take on another pandemic: racism | COMMENTARY

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a White House coronavirus task force briefing this month. More than 1,200 CDC employees signed a letter criticizing the agency for "scant progress in addressing the very real challenges Black employees experience."
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a White House coronavirus task force briefing this month. More than 1,200 CDC employees signed a letter criticizing the agency for "scant progress in addressing the very real challenges Black employees experience." (Jason Andrew/The New York Times)

More than 1,200 Centers for Disease Control employees recently signed a letter imploring Director Robert Redfield to declare racism a public health crisis and for the CDC to “clean its own house” by instituting what they’re calling seven acts of change. Among the demands is an acknowledgment that the CDC has a “toxic culture of exclusion and racial discrimination” and an increase to Black representation among top leadership. The letter notes that out of 30 senior officials at the CDC, only three are Black, and two out of the three are in leadership roles related to race.

“At CDC, we have a powerful platform from which to create real change,” they wrote. “By declaring racism a public health crisis, the agency has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the power of science to confront this insidious threat that undermines the health and strength of our entire nation.”

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The employees make a powerful point: Racism is a pandemic that’s been raging for centuries, and it’s deadly. In the Black community, it takes lives through police brutality, inadequate health care and unequal economic opportunities. We saw it this spring, when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, an African American man, for nearly 9 minutes, until he was dead. And we see it daily in our own communities, as COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color — something the primarily white CDC leadership clearly didn’t want to admit, seeing as The New York Times had to sue them to gather data related to the pandemic’s racial breakdown. It shows that Black and Latinx Americans are three times as likely to contract coronavirus as whites, and twice as likely to die from it.

Unsurprisingly, when the White House Coronavirus Task Force was initially announced, there was not a single Black or Latinx expert on the list, and though several people of color have since joined, the group is still overwhelmingly white (and male). In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan’s Coronavirus Response Team, convened in March, included only one African American person out of a dozen people named.

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A lack of appropriate racial representation is not just an issue in the health sphere, however. It’s evident in nearly every industry, and people are demanding change. Wall Street Journal reporters last month called on their leaders to bring more diversity to newsroom positions and “encourage more muscular reporting about race and social inequities.” Goldman Sachs has pledged to no longer take companies public with all-white male boards. And Vanity Fair just this year finally ran a front cover photographed by a Black photographer, Dario Calmese.

All that is to say the work has only just begun. In response to Floyd’s killing, equity demands and calls for racial justice overwhelm our social media feeds and city streets today, but the question is whether that will translate to action tomorrow — and every day thereafter. Black people should not have to die for companies to hire diverse voices; diversity should be valued on its own.

If in 2020, it is still unclear to those with hiring power why diversity matters, a study done by professors in Amsterdam in 2016 makes it clear. An openness toward diversity within a company encourages more communication and inclusion between people, they found, as well as “increased knowledge sharing.” So, not only do hiring practices matter for properly serving your community, they create a more collaborative workplace.

Embracing diversity goes beyond just hiring people to placate the public or to look politically correct. Institutions all over this country have an ethical responsibility to hold a mirror up to their employee racial makeup and hold themselves accountable when they find it lacking a true representation of the population. It’s not about cherry-picking people of color to only address race issues, and it’s certainly not about virtue signaling to prove something to employees and the public. That’s not diversity, that’s tokenism.

As we’ve seen with COVID-19, failing to take precautions to contain a disease allows it to flourish. It’s beyond time we each did our part to end the racism pandemic.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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