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Chicago Mayor Declares Racism a Public Health Crisis

June 21, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared racism a public health crisis in Chicago this week, pointing to new research from the Chicago Department of Public Health showing that racism is the primary reason for a 9.2-year life expectancy gap between Black and non-Black people living in the city. 

“The State of Health for Blacks in Chicago is a stark reminder of the legacy of unacceptable inequities that continue to plague our city and country to this day,” the mayor said on Friday. “[It] is also a call to action for our city and one we take very seriously and are acting upon.”

Five Black women, including Blair Aikens, Dana Harper, Rachelle Paul-Brutus, Donna Scrutchins and Yaa Simpson, comprised the committee that sought to define, measure, analyze and discuss the various forms of racism in society. These include systemic exclusion and the sources of “toxic stress” that prevent Black Chicagoans from achieving health equity.

The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) released The State of Health for Blacks in Chicago report last week. The committee said Black city residents live an average 71.4 years, while white, Latino and Asian residents live an average of 80.6 years.

According to the report, the stark difference in life expectancy is due in part to the disproportionate impacts of infant mortality, opioid overdose, chronic disease and homicide on the community. For example, Diabetes is 70% more likely to kill a Black Chicagoan than a white Chicagoan, they said. 

Black Chicagoans are also nine times more likely to be homicide victims than other Chicagoans, and Black infants are approximately three times as likely to die in their first year of life compared to babies of other races, according to the report.

Black Chicagoans also make up nearly half of all Chicagoans living with HIV, while they make up one-third of the city’s population, according to the report.

When broken down by neighborhood, the data shows an even more shocking life expectancy between those who live in Edison Park, a primarily white Far Northwest Side neighborhood, and those who live in Garfield Park, a primarily Black West Side neighborhood, is more than 14.5 years.

Chicago is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. In 2019, there were 768,524 Black people living in Chicago, and 80% lived in 23 out of the 77 community areas of the city.

The committee said in its report that the city did not become segregated by accident. 

“Long histories of political and economic exclusion have led to the geographic isolation of Blacks from other racial groups in the city,” the report read. “This includes inequitable local government policies and practices such as redlining, contract sales, real estate covenants and racialized violence and intimidation.”

To combat a history of political and economic exclusion of Black people in Chicago, the Chicago Public Health Department launched the Healthy Chicago 2025 initiative, a citywide plan to reduce the racial life expectancy gap with strategies that tackle the root causes of health. 

The Healthy Chicago 2025 plan seeks to transform policies and processes to foster anti-racist, multicultural systems, strengthen community capacity and youth leadership, improve systems of care for populations most affected by inequities, and further the health and vibrancy of neighborhoods through a coalition of over 40 stakeholders representing the broad spectrum of Chicago’s public health system. 

The department also recently hired its first chief racial equity officer and launched two surveys, the Healthy Chicago Survey and Chicago Health Atlas, to better connect with Chicagoans and make data for them more accessible. 

The COVID-19 outbreak had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, and in response, the city has created the Racial Equity Rapid Response Team to make a concerted effort to provide direct resources to the most impacted communities using a COVID Community Vulnerability Index to assess areas most in need.

“Members and allies of the Black community … must join forces to address and eliminate these critical health inequities and their underlying causes. Only then will the color of the person’s skin no longer determine how long they live or their quality of life,” the committee said.

Chicago’s efforts will be sustained through $9.6 million in COVID-19 relief funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish Healthy Chicago Equity Zones. These zones will comprise six geographic areas covering the entire city that will be led by regional and community organizations.

These organizations will use participatory, data-informed processes to create community-based stakeholder coalitions to develop targeted strategies to improve community and individual wellness. 

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