AHS Kicks Off Distinguished Lecturer Series

Dr. Brian Smedley

Dr. Brian Smedley, executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity, discussed links between racism and health disparities in the inaugural address of the AHS Distinguished Lecturer Series.

According to Dr. Brian Smedley, structural, institutional, individual, and internalized racism are at the root of the health disparities that exist for Native American, African American, Latino/a, and some Asian cultures. Unless these root causes are fully understood and addressed, it is difficult if not impossible to achieve health equity.
Dr. Smedley delivered his remarks to a standing-room-only audience for the inaugural address of the Applied Health Sciences Distinguished Lecturer Series. He is the executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity, which connects research, policy analysis, and communications with activism to reduce health disparities.
Health disparities cut across all disease types, he noted, from asthma to cardiovascular disease, and cancer to diabetes. “Health equity requires valuing all individuals equally, recognizing and rectifying historical injustices, and addressing contemporary inequities by providing resources according to needs,” he said. He pointed to a plethora of research that demonstrates that even when presented as having the same socioeconomic status, education, and experience as their white counterparts, people of color received lower-quality health care and fewer job offers, and were more likely to be refused loans and mortgages. 
The stress associated with being a member of a minority group has real health consequences, Dr. Smedley said. So does living in segregated communities, which concentrate poverty and isolate residents from mainstream resources that are necessary to success, such as good schools, jobs, and transportation. He cited statistics from census data as recent as 2010 that show African Americans are five times more likely to live in neighborhoods without access to supermarkets, parks and green spaces, or facilities for recreation and exercise. Neighborhoods, in other words, that are anything but conducive to health and well-being.

Audience at Smedley lecture

Dr. Smedley's address drew a large crowd to the Alice Campbell Alumni Center.

“For most of our history in the public health context in the United States, we’ve done a good job of wagging our fingers at people and saying, ‘You need to eat healthy meals. You need to exercise,’” he said. “But we’ve failed to consider community context. In too many communities, those behaviors are nearly impossible to do.”
Addressing the issue of health disparity will require the political will to implement what Dr. Smedley referred to as place-based and people-based strategies. Place-based strategies include investing in communities to reduce the concentration of health risks and increase health-enhancing resources such as food retailers. People-based strategies include increasing housing mobility options and improving access to high-quality early childhood education programs, which have been shown to increase long-term academic achievement that leads to greater employability, wealth, and health.   
Dr. Smedley concluded his address by emphasizing that health inequalities are not a naturally occurring phenomenon. “They’re the result of policy choices that we have made that unfairly advantage some communities and disadvantage other communities,” he said. “But they ultimately undermine all of us. They damage the full potential of our society and divide us in ways that break our society apart.”
Watch Dr. Smedley’s full address here.
Applied Health Sciences Distinguished Lecturer Series provides a forum for scholars, students, academic professionals, and practitioners to discuss science, policy, culture, and politics at the intersection of health, aging, and disability. The ultimate goal of the series is to expose attendees to the most current international models and paradigms on health and wellness, to advance understanding of factors driving health care policy and delivery in the United States, and to generate research ideas and ignite interdisciplinary collaborations among scholars.

Dr. Brian Smedley and audience member

Audience members talked with Dr. Brian Smedley after his address.