New York Times Journalist Linda Villarosa speaks about her new book “Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American lives and on the Health of our Nation’ to Ford School of Public Policy students Tuesday evening. Maria Deckmann/Daily. Buy this photo.

The Wallace House Center for Journalists hosted Linda Villarosa, a New York Times journalist, for a conversation on racial health disparities as a part of the University of Michigan’s Martin Luther King Jr. 2023 Symposium. Over 80 attendees gathered in the Annenberg Auditorium in the Ford School of Public Policy Tuesday evening to hear Villarosa’s conversation with Lynette Clemetson, the Charles R. Eisendrath director of Wallace House, who moderated the discussion. 

The discussion expanded upon the the public health topics Villarosa explores in her book “Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation,” which was recognized by The Washington Post, Time Magazine, NPR and Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of 2022. 

Clemetson began the event by explaining the mission of the Wallace House. She said the organization works to inform the public of the role journalists play in the public sphere. 

“It is part of our mission to make sure that the public really understands the vital role that journalists play in our society,” Clemetson said. “The public knows about things because journalists write … The work of scholars, journalists and policymakers are intertwined.”

Celeste Watkins-Hayes, interim dean of the Public Policy School, spoke at the event and highlighted Villarosa’s journalistic achievements. Watkins-Hayes said she admires Villarosa’s work in the field of health equity. Villarosa’s work for The New York Times has included award-winning pieces on Black maternal-infant mortality and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, as well as an essay contribution to the 1619 Project, a multimedia collection of works exploring systemic racism in the United States. 

“I have followed Linda’s illustrious career of admiration as she has been on the front lines of shedding light on the HIV epidemic and disproportionate impacts on communities of Color,” Watkins-Hayes said. “Linda is both a storyteller and truth-teller, leading with compassion and integrity, all the while offering sharp analyses of our most pressing issues.”

In her remarks, Villarosa stressed the severity of racial disparities related to maternal-infant health specifically. She underscored the importance of understanding racism as a social determinant of health. While writing her book, she said she spoke with people who thought that education and income levels are more important factors, an opinion Villarosa strongly disagrees with. 

“A Black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to die — or almost die — (from medical complications) related to pregnancy and childbirth than a white woman with an eighth-grade education,” Villarosa said. “Education is a proxy for knowing what to do and how to take care of yourself, for having access to health insurance coverage or having a good doctor, but that isn’t (enough to protect) Black women.”

Villarosa emphasized that even those with health care coverage in the Black community may avoid seeking care because of historical patterns of racism and discrimination in medical care. Many medical breakthroughs, including the creation of modern-day gynecological practices and the use of HeLa cells in developing the polio vaccine, cancer treatments and in vitro fertilization, were the result of experimentation on Black women without informed consent.  

Villarosa told a personal story of how her father, who developed dementia, was restrained to the bed at her local hospital. She said she and her mother had to bring her father’s medals from his service in the Navy to convince the doctors to treat her father with decency. 

Villarosa said an important first step in addressing racial health disparities is implementing anti-discrimination training for all health care providers. Villarosa specifically highlighted the work of lawmakers in California as an example of positive change in that area. In January 2020, California started requiring implicit bias training for all perinatal healthcare professionals in an effort to reduce maternal-infant health inequities. 

“Many of us do have access to health care, but we don’t want to be involved in a system because we get harmed by the system,” Villarosa said. “Widening access to a system that’s broken will not fix the problems we have in this country.”

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