WCMS Letter to Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Requesting they Name Racism as a Public Health Crisis

July 8, 2020

Dear Buncombe County Board of Commissioners:

I am writing to ask you to name racism as a public health crisis in Buncombe County. On June 26, 2020, the Buncombe County Health and Human Services Board passed a proclamation that asserts this and describes action steps the board will take to advance racial equity and justice in our county.

As the CEO of the Western Carolina Medical Society, I have witnessed the health consequences of racism across Western North Carolina families and communities. Since 1996, we have worked directly with low income, uninsured Black and LatinX patients through WCMS’ Project Access, and since 2005 through the WCMS Interpreter Network. We have experienced first-hand that racism negatively influences the health and well-being of individuals of all ages. The consequences of racism ultimately disadvantage our entire society. The Western Carolina Medical Society’s Statement on Racism as a Public Health Crisis explains that structural and individual racism directly causes health disparities, comorbidities, chronic stress, and early death among Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), their families, and their communities.

There are many forms and manifestations of racism (including individual, interpersonal, institutional and systemic). We are focusing this advocacy effort specifically on addressing institutional and structural racism: the interconnected ways societies foster racial discrimination in housing, education, employment, earnings, benefits, credit, media, health care, and criminal justice that lead to inequities in education, employment, justice, and health opportunities, conditions, and outcomes. Communities across the country are coming together, unifying in the call to end racial injustice in all systems, emerging as a movement that demands we take meaningful action to address the experiences of BIPOC without delay. COVID-19 has amplified existing health inequities, exacerbating the unjust and avoidable disparities in health conditions, opportunities and outcomes between community members and groups because of the cumulative stressors, trauma, and unequal treatment caused by racism.

Buncombe County has a deeply rooted history of institutional and systemic racism that has contributed to persistent and often increasing racial inequities in health outcomes and connected social determinants. We at the Western Carolina Medical Society recognize the need to urgently and collaboratively address systemic racism in order to advance the health and wellbeing of our entire community. Substantial investments in dismantling structural racism are required to facilitate the societal shifts necessary for optimal health in the United States and right here in Buncombe County. There is significant work happening in our community to undo racism and discrimination. As community leaders, our integrity will determine the stand we take today, tomorrow and the future. We have an obligation to speak out against institutional and systemic racism and social injustices. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere … The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

We now ask that you, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, use your leadership in our community to officially name racism as a public health crisis in our County. We ask you to work with the County Manager and staff on recognizing and rectifying historical injustices, identifying and changing policies that uphold the impact of structural racism, and allocating funding that builds on community assets and begins to repair the damage that racism causes in our community.  Please join us in recognizing this urgent crisis in order to ensure sustained focus on dismantling racism and building a more equitable and just society for all.

With appreciation,

Miriam Schwarz, CEO

Western Carolina Medical Society