'We are hurt. We are angry': Black CDC employees urge agency to address 'long-festering disease of racial discrimination'

Rachel Grumman Bender
·5 min read

Black employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent a letter to CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, calling out the “racism and discrimination” they say they’ve experienced at the agency. The letter, which was provided to NPR and has been signed by more than 1,000 CDC employees, starts by pointing out the “long-festering disease of racial discrimination and oppression” in the United States, including the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

“We are hurt,” the employees wrote. “We are angry. We are exhausted. And ultimately, we fear that, despite the global protests, little will be done to address the systemic racism we face each and every day.”

Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

They state that systemic racism at the agency is a “crushing reality” and the CDC “must clean its own house first.” The employees note that “well-meaning, yet under-funded, diversity and inclusion efforts” at the federal agency have resulted in “scant progress.” They also call out the lack of inclusion and diversity at senior levels and allege that Black employees are being stifled and blocked from “opportunities for professional advancement.” They go on to describe a “toxic” work environment that’s rife with “racial aggressions, bullying and marginalization.”

According to the letter, Black CDC employees have filed “hundreds” of complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the past decade and allege that many were “met by inaction, or worse, retaliation.” The letter concludes with a list of seven detailed action steps the employees would like to see implemented at the CDC, starting with immediately and publicly acknowledging that “systemic racism is a public health crisis.”

They also call for greater diversity, stating that Black employees at the CDC make up only 10 percent of the federal agency’s senior leadership, along with increasing opportunities for Black scientists “to lead scientific and programmatic activities as they are typically more equipped to understand issues that disproportionately affect Black Americans.”

Most notably, one of those pressing health issues that has significantly affected Black Americans is the coronavirus. According to the New York Times, which sued the CDC to obtain more detailed federal data on racial disparities in coronavirus infections: “Black and Latino people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in a widespread manner that spans the country,” noting that “Latino and African-American residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors,” and “Black and Latino people have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people.”

Quinn Capers, MD, a professor of medicine at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that he finds the letter “concerning.” “I’m troubled that in a pandemic, which really is disproportionally impacting Black and brown lives, that the Black employees, scientists and health professionals at our nation’s premier public health organization feel they are suffering from discrimination.”

Capers says the situation is “particularly disheartening” but adds that he’s “proud” the employees wrote the letter. “Sometimes you have to take things to a public forum,” he says, “and simply knowing the world is watching is what gets action sometimes.”

Referring to the protests against racial injustice after the murder of Floyd, which took place not only in all 50 states and D.C. but also across the globe, Capers says, “It really feels like this time the whole world has had enough. There’s just no more appetite for racism and bigotry.”

He adds: “I hope that the same can be said within the CDC, because the CDC is critically important to all of us. But only if it has a broad base of expertise and how they look at pandemics and outbreaks from a diverse perspective [with] scientists from different walks of life.”

In a statement provided to Yahoo Life, the CDC acknowledges that Redfield “received the letter and responded,” without providing any further details, adding: “CDC is committed to fostering a fair, equitable and inclusive environment in which staff can openly share their concerns with agency leadership.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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