Nearly nine months ago, New Haven removed the statue of Christopher Columbus from Wooster Square. The empty pedestal is a tangible reminder of the work to be done in the New Haven and the broader U.S.

Applying pressure to a poorly reinforced system has detrimental effects that compromises all prior notions of integrity. Similarly, applying crisis to a house-of-cards society exposes systematic corruption. The incidence of COVID-19 in the United States catalyzed inevitable social unrest; a country built on racism, deceived by a racist regime’s sleight of hand, must undergo reconstruction. Therefore, we must systemically distill and target racism’s proliferative source.

Toward a Historically Informed Analysis of Racial Health Disparities Since 1619” by Evelynn Hammonds and Susan Reverby discusses the history of racism in the American health care system. They contend that the lackluster dignity of the U.S. embodies a legacy of racism and racist health disparities since its inception. “Critical Race Theory, Race, Equity, and Public Health: Toward Antiracism Praxis” defines racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” The authors of “Critical Race Theory” further assert that both quality health and structural racism cannot simultaneously exist. Health disparity is an indicator of racism; where health disparities exist, racism persists. 

Our problems today have long-standing roots: The U.S. slavery industry prompted a racially divided health care system where “medical professionals” believed that a Black man biologically required a white man’s intervention, else suffer increased rates of morbidity and mortality. Even after emancipation, Black Americans were forced to open separate medical schools to train African American physicians and fight against “evolutionary” theorists who claimed that biological phenomena explain differential health outcomes. While W.E.B. Du Bois strongly refuted these theories, the perspectives persist today. 

In the era of COVID-19, the biological explanation for disproportional health risks is slyly pervasive. Such sleight of hand abuses the influence that the scientific community has on society and utilizes “science” as a subliminal schema for racism. 

Concern for biologic rationalizations of COVID-19 against the Black community is discussed by Merlin Chowkwanyun and Adolph L. Reed in “Racial Disparities and Covid-19—Caution and Context”: Data assessed in a vacuum can lead to “biological explanations for racial health disparities.” Indeed, such thinking is found in modern day medical discourse, where claims of drastic biologic differences between white and Black anatomy persist. Even worse, the claims have an audience. The existence of perceived strong “evolutionary” rationalizations alludes to a denial of U.S. history — the perpetrators reject that the plight of the Black man is a direct result of racism in the U.S. 

The solution for a malignant cancer is intensive treatment targeted at toxic proliferation. If the cancer of American society is racism, the toxic proliferation is American exceptionalism. The cure: expose historical atrocities and deconstruct neo-nationalism, thereby, building a society that recognizes the gravitational impact of our ancestry. Isaac Agboola, a Yale New Haven Hospital third-year resident, calls a spade a spade in his article published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine “I am a 5-foot-10-in, 195-lb, athletically built, Black man. If you take away my white coat and stethoscope, I am that person on the stretcher. It scares me to know that I am a wardrobe change away from being someone who can have his civil liberties stripped from him in an instant.” Millions of Americans across the country experience the horrific reality that Agboola described. There is nothing exceptional about a country where upstanding citizens are a wardrobe change from groundless, arbitrary claims. Until we, the citizens and community members of New Haven and the U.S. at large, recognize this truth and the long history of racism in the U.S., it will continue to proliferate. 

It is frightening that a global pandemic is necessary to expose the true face of America. But we must pay attention before the next crisis. If American exceptionalism remains devoid of critique, systematic racism in the U.S. will persist, and the public will yet again fall victim to the sleight of hand of the racist regimes of American leadership.

JOSEPH WILLIAMS is a first-year MPH candidate in YSPH. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at joseph.williams@yale.edu.