Hate is a public health problem

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This statement was written by Carolyn Fisher on behalf of all of us at ICH.

A world in which empowered and knowledgeable communities achieve health equity and a high quality of life for all.

I am often inspired by ICH’s vision statement. I feel ownership over it, since we arrived at it together through a consensus-building process. I especially appreciate how it speaks of empowerment, knowledge and equity on a community level, not an individual level. As a social scientist, I start my understanding of humans with a strong sense that we are social animals, and that our societies and communities contribute in a strong way to who and what we are.

And yet, this vision feels very, very distant today. The recent hate crimes just in the last week — the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the pipe bombs mailed to progressive political leaders, the attempted shooting at a black church in Kentucky, followed by the shooting of two at a supermarket — have deeply affected my sense of well-being, as it has that of many people I have talked with in recent days.

In the words of Rev. Adam Lawrence Dyer:

This is not a time for statistics, or politics or rhetoric.  This is a time for grief…shared deep grief for those families who will not have a loved one at dinner, or by their side or in their bed.  Grief for a community that must weigh its safety against its values of openness. Grief for a society that does not seem to have a solution for its lethal mixture of fear driven, racist identities and a catastrophic obsession with firearms and violence. (emailed statement, Oct 28, 2018).

As a public health professional, I do still have a tendency to start with statistics (sorry, Adam). The numbers of people victimized by mass shootings are horrifying — the frequency, mind-numbing. And it is clear that the number of victims has been increasing over time — the last year has been particularly horrific.

But in our work we must move from the numbers to the meanings behind them. It is important to understand that those who perpetrated this violence, who I will not name, did not act in a vacuum. This type of violence often finds expression in the actions of marginalized individuals with mental health problems. But it is nurtured in communities where racist hate speech is given free rein. It grows with support from political leaders. It is enabled by lax gun laws.  And it is a symptom of a growing problem in our society.

The perpetrators did not do violence only to individuals. These acts of violence were also incredibly potent symbolic weapons. The Pittsburgh perpetrator killed individuals – and he also struck a violent blow to the sense of peace, safety and health of an entire community and everyone who identifies with this community and its work.

Symbols are not guns. But symbols may have a comparably powerful impact on public health.

As Dr. Leith Mullings has written, the disparities in health outcomes between minorities (Mullings writes about African American women in Harlem) and whites are not explainable only by economic disparities. The constant, everyday stress experienced by members of minority groups causes higher rates of morbidity and mortality and worse health outcomes for members of these communities, even controlling for numerous other factors.

In the name of our vision of a world in which empowered and knowledgeable communities achieve health equity and a high quality of life for all, ICH condemns violence and hate in its many forms, including racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and white supremacy.  We grieve with our victims’ loved ones. And we stand in solidarity with those of us who are targeted by hate and violence.

Carolyn Fisher, PhD

Research and Evaluation Project Manager