SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, two members share their perspectives on the policy and history associated with racial justice.
All Science Policy is Health Policy
Racial, social, and health inequities are not some randomly occurring natural phenomena, unintended consequences of well-meaning policies, or outcomes of individual choices. These are the precise products of well-designed public policies and systems orchestrated to benefit the few while crushing the masses. These contemporary systems of oppression - ranging from healthcare, housing, transportation, education, employment, built-environment, criminal ‘injustice’ system, and so on - that perpetuate racial, social, and economic inequities also produce health inequities. In that, almost all public policies are inherently public health policies given their direct or indirect impact on social determinants of health and health equity goals.
In our collective selective memory as a society, many with the privilege to do so forget our nation’s violent history of colonization, genocide, enslavement, and segregation that continues to pay dividends to this day through racist public policies that exclude BIPOC populations who experience vulnerabilities due to racist, structural barriers. In the public health and science policy sphere, there exists a tendency to find simplistic, technical solutions to complex, layered, racialized challenges that date back centuries. Importantly, the lives and well-being of BIPOC populations are considered mere collateral damage in the name of practicality, pragmatism, and incrementalism when in reality it is just a matter of an unjust, inequitable social contract that was drawn by the few, for the few, and produces exactly the results it was intended to produce. Given the interdependent, complex, and intersectional nature of health, no meaningful progress can be made towards health equity goals until we integrate racial justice as a key process and an outcome of our public policies. Intentionally integrating racial justice in all policies is the key to achieving a fair, just society free of health inequities where all people can enjoy “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
All Science Policy is Racial (In)Justice Policy
The history of Western science is inseparable from the exploitation and appropriation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color’s (BIPOC) resources, bodies, lives, and knowledge in service of colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy. There is growing awareness among scientists that much of our foundational knowledge has been gained at the expense of BIPOC communities (the dispossession and destruction of Indigenous lands to advance the earth and space sciences and the grave-robbing, torture, and refusal of treatment to advance the medical, biological, and anthropological sciences are but a few examples). Science has been readily invoked to justify egregious domestic policy (e.g., slavery, segregation, eugenics) and acts of imperialism. Lest we think this is solely a problem of the past, the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that health and science policy continue to disproportionately harm BIPOC communities today.
While the interrogation of historical injustices enabled and perpetrated by scientists is long overdue, there has been less attention to how present-day norms and practices in science and policy continue to reinforce structural racism. A fundamental skill for science policy advocates is the ability to scrutinize power dynamics involved in knowledge production and policymaking—what problems are deemed worth solving, what evidence and narratives are considered convincing, who is authorized to be an expert—and then consider how those norms center whiteness. In scientific research and policymaking alike, the failure to explicitly consider equity throughout all stages of the process is likely to, at best, reproduce existing systems of oppression, and at worst, actively harm People of Color. Just as “all policies are health policies,” in the United States—a settler colonial state established by the labor of enslaved people—all policies advance or impede racial (in)justice. In the words of Ibram X. Kendi (echoed by panelist Victoria Alexander at the NSPN Annual Symposium), there is no such thing as a race-neutral policy.
Science policy for racial justice requires that science policy advocates accept a dual responsibility: we must critically examine the processes involved in both scientific research and policymaking and continually interrogate taken-for-granted assumptions of “how things are done.” If you’re wondering where to begin, incorporate inclusive policymaking tools into your research and collaborate with community activists. Challenge aspects of white supremacy culture that serve to reproduce whiteness in your institution/organization. If possible, leverage your own contacts to disrupt the hidden curriculum of policy and the reliance on social networks to advance professionally, which only benefit the most privileged. Instead, provide more visible, structured pathways into science policy: outreach efforts, funding sources, and skill-building workshops are pivotal first steps. Science policy for racial justice requires a lifelong commitment to critical reflexivity and disrupting the status quo. Start now, wherever you are.