Message to Brown School Community from Dean McKay

Community Engagement; Diversity; PhD; Public Health; Social Work

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed glaring health and economic disparities among communities of color, and has been particularly dangerous for African Americans. According to CDC data, one third of people who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 are African American, yet African Americans only account for 13% of the U.S. population. At the root of this distressing disparity is not just underlying health conditions that put black Americans at elevated risk – diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma – but a host of factors tied to structural racism, including poverty, lack of access to healthcare, low-wage employment and minimal benefits, as well as chronic stress. COVID-19 has highlighted what many of us already knew:  Racism is a social determinate of health.

 At the same time as our neighbors of African descent struggle with the fear, trauma and grief associated with this serious public health threat, we learn of the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis.  Mr. Floyd is seen begging to breathe in multiple videos and later dies in police custody.  His death follows, what feels like immediately, the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man in Georgia. 

Six years ago, colleagues and I organized a body of work, The Trauma of Racism, in response to the killing of Eric Garner in New York City.  It was our attempt to address the pain, rage, fear and hope that we could stop the loss of life of our African American friends, neighbors, colleagues and citizens.  Mr. Garner’s words, “I can’t breathe,” are heard again today!  

Yet, it is important to continue in the struggle to stop the loss of life of people of color, whether it is a result of the pandemic or from being on the receiving end of unnecessary violence. This must stop! 

So many faculty, student and staff colleagues are deeply engaged in work to address the root causes of health disparities, unjust housing practices, food insecurity, and community level violence.  As a community of social work, public health and social policy scientists, educators, professionals and informed citizens, we must continue the struggle to support communities of color. We need a stronger, focused effort to eliminate the need to survive the mounting emotional and mental health impacts that come with enduring relentless racism, as well as the devastating losses of community pillars, public servants and beloved family members.  

Over the last few weeks and then again, just yesterday, our school, in cooperation with the Clark-Fox Policy Institute, organized a series designed to bring greater awareness and attention to the devastating impact that the pandemic is having on communities of color.  The first two parts are available for viewing online.  

Part 1: COVID-19 and Race: The Disproportionate Impact on the Health of Communities of Color

Part 2: COVID-19 and Race: Mental Health and Emotional Well-being

As you listen, please be aware that the conversations and the powerful perspectives are challenging to listen to and caused upset as the speakers and participants grappled with the profound pain and anger associated with deeply embedded injustice.  

We are continuing the series with Part 3: COVID-19 and Race: Political Action and Power in the Face of Adversity, on June 11 at 10 a.m. CT and registration is open. 

We will be discussing how the Black community is taking action to uproot policies influenced by racism that have made it more vulnerable to public health and economic crises. We will be joined by scientists, activists and advocates who are engaged in the immediate response to COVID-19 and who are mobilizing for sustained change for the future.  We are also in the process of developing several additional parts of the series,  including a deeper look at the impact on Latinx and indigenous populations.

To be a part of the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis or any institution of higher learning requires us to engage fully in the responsibility to use the platforms, resources and data available to us to shine a light on the unacceptable health, economic and social disparities within communities of color.  It is a matter of life or death.


Mary M. McKay
Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean
Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis

Vetta Sanders Thomspon
E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity
Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis