Multnomah County celebrates Juneteeth with discussion on health impacts of racism

June 15, 2017

James Mason delivers keynote address at Juneteenth Celebration.

Racism, bias and discrimination put Black Americans at risk for long-term health problems, so Multnomah County employees should equip themselves with skills and tools to recognize and properly treat people whose health is suffering under the weight of oppression, the Chief Diversity Officer for Providence Health & Services in Oregon said Thursday, June 15.

“I’m going to share some things with you that are very important and hopefully inspire you to go deep,” James Mason told a group of county employees gathered for the county’s annual Juneteenth Celebration.

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June and nineteenth, recognizes the day in 1865 that news of the abolition of slavery reached Texas. The announcement came more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, African Americans across the country gather on Juneteenth to celebrate freedom.

Mason, the event’s keynote speaker, delivered his address, “Eliminating Racism: Implications for Health and Human Service Professionals,” to a packed audience at the Lincoln Building.

James Mason
James Mason

He called Multnomah County employees a “beacon of hope in the great Northwest,” and urged them to consider all the ways racism can impact the health and well-being of their clients and patients.

For instance, Mason said there is research to support that one of the ways people cope with racism is to retreat from relationships, an action that can imperil a person’s mental health.

“We lose our grip on reality when we lose our people, not when we lose our things,” Mason said, speaking specifically about minority groups with a tradition of living in close community with one another. “For example, when I look around the room, I know a lot of you and a lot of you grew up broke. ...We can do broke and we can do broke again if we have to. But we can’t do without mama’s love. We can’t do without our grandparents’ love.”

Mason also pointed to several studies that show a significant relationship between racial discrimination and low birth weight. The research shows that psychosocial factors, such as experiencing racism, can negatively impact health outcomes for African American women, in particular, including pregnant women, whose health problems can then hurt their unborn children.

“A lot of us thought for years that low birth weight was something genetic, maybe a carryover from the Middle Passage, maybe something we brought from the mother country,” Mason said. “But we found that when you control for that we still end up with low birth weight, if we’re not careful.”

County employees should use this knowledge to guide how they think about what aid to provide to people in need. Treatment plans, Mason said, often include mental health, substance abuse and economic components, while overlooking spiritual, recreational, or socialization needs.

Mason urged county workers to better understand why the communities they work with have difficulty accessing and understanding health information. The reasons could be cultural, he said.

Juneteenth Celebration
Multnomah County employees celebrate at Juneteenth Celebration

Mason also said county workers shouldn’t be afraid to confront their own biases – “get in touch with who spooks you,” he said – and let their clients and patients “teach” them.

The consequences of not doing so and ignoring the connections between racial discrimination and health are steep, he said.

“When we think about the impact of racism and bias and discrimination on people, it’s manifestations are becoming more apparent and its consequences more lifelong,” Mason said. “And many of the conditions become chronic as a result, which is scary for a lot of us in healthcare and public health as a result.”

While Mason delivered the keynote, he was not the celebration’s only speaker.

Commissioner Loretta Smith pointed to the SummerWorks internship program she started upon joining the Board of Commissioners as a tool for combating racism and discrimination. The program is aimed at helping low-income young people develop career skills and real world work experience.

Commissioner Loretta Smith
Commissioner Loretta Smith

“It first starts from the economic standpoint,”  Commissioner Smith said. “Folks need a job.”

The event also featured live music and poetry.