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Robert Winn, Janice Underwood and Abigail Spanberger column: America tests positive for our collective disease
Structural racism

Robert Winn, Janice Underwood and Abigail Spanberger column: America tests positive for our collective disease

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By Robert Winn, Janice Underwood and Abigail Spanberger

Our nation is in the grips of a disease that has plagued us for more than 400 years.

This particular disease does not require the expertise of a doctor for a diagnosis. Its symptoms are unmistakable: inequities of housing, education and employment. Other symptoms include unfair policing, food insecurity and a lack of access to quality health care. The most toxic of its symptoms, however, is the dehumanization of other human beings, which — like a defective immune system — induces the body to attack itself.

Like with many chronic diseases, we’ve often ignored it. And just like that blinking change oil light or our pesky high blood sugar, this disease eventually catches up to us in a way we are no longer able to ignore.

This highly contagious disease is endemic-institutional structural racism. It’s both insidious and blatant. It’s a public health crisis even more deadly than the coronavirus of the past four months.

As three public servants in three distinct fields, we know that our commonwealth and our country have ignored structural racism for far too long. Often, it’s easier to treat the symptoms than actually attack the root causes of the disease.

Like responsible citizens, we’ve learned a great deal about our disease. Previous generations have developed treatment plans, such as the Rumford Fair Housing Act, the Patrick Moynihan Report, the McCone Commission Report and the Kerner Commission Report. More recently, we’ve seen the Heckler Report, the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. These treatment plans have been well-researched, thoughtful and precise in the battle against our illness.

The issue is not so much that we lack knowledge about our chronic illness, nor is it that we lack treatment plans to combat this disease. Fundamentally, we’ve been unwilling to commit to the prescribed treatment, and we lack the local and nationwide resolve to take the medicine that will improve our condition. As a result, we’ve fallen into a state of delirium.

In medicine, the symptoms of a delirium include short attention span, intermittent confusion, disorientation and emotional disruption. Examples of this condition include our Snapchat-like memory of the countless black, brown and native lives lost because of white supremacy, as well as the three-card molly carnival trick by divisive leaders that disorients us until the next bewildering news cycle hits. But the most disturbing example of delirium is believing that we have no voice or agency, or are powerless to make change.

Our treatment resides in the policy changes and collective commitment for sustained progress in favor of humanity and justice for all. One voice, one vote alone might not heal us, but a chorus of individuals participating, demanding more and advocating is essential to our nation’s health.

Chronic diseases require constant attention, and the disease of structural racism is no different. If left untreated, we’ll continue down a path of racial strife, Band-Aid approaches and empty promises — until next time.

Throughout the great portion of our past century, the successful treatment of cancer seemed impossible. However, we now take for granted the numerous miracle drugs used to improve the lives of cancer patients. Likewise, a holistic and effective treatment for endemic-institutional structural racism might seem like a pipe dream, but it’s not.

In our hands — whether we’re medical doctors, state officials or federal lawmakers — we have the know-how, tools and approaches to address this illness. We can and must formally declare endemic-institutional structural racism a public health crisis and then institutionalize mechanisms of equity and reconciliation at the local, state and federal levels. But our biggest hurdle will continue to be whether our colleagues and the collective public will commit to a well-defined treatment plan — something we must find within ourselves, our families and our communities.

We can’t unsee the murder of George Floyd or the disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. But what are you willing to do about it? In the short term, we must vote, reform policing and increase support in the fight against COVID-19. For the long term, we must pursue legislation that provides systemic reform of our institutions in the same way the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned in “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

Treating the root causes of our collective disease will prove more difficult than finding a vaccine for COVID-19. But amazing things are possible when we discover our political will, make changes that we already know will expand opportunity, and embrace the strength and patience to stay the course.

Robert Winn, M.D., is the director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center. Contact him at:

Janice Underwood, Ph.D., is the first Cabinet-level chief diversity officer for the office of Gov. Ralph Northam. Contact her at:

Abigail Spanberger represents Virginia’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Contact her at:


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