Racism is a Social Determinant of Health

Sanjivan V. Patel, MD, FAAP

Sanjivan V. Patel, MD, FAAP

Racism is a social determinant of health – Pediatricians, children and their parents need to be a part of the conversation

Sanjivan Patel, MD, FAAP
Chairman, Department of Pediatrics
Wyckoff Heights Medical Center

Nguyen-Thao Tran, DO, PGY2
Department of Pediatrics
Wyckoff Heights Medical Center

As Pediatricians, our longstanding responsibility is to advocate for children’s health. The current events within our communities surrounding racism forces us to evaluate its role and the effect it has on children. Protests and civil unrest against racism took to the streets across America the last few weeks in response to the inhumane murder of George Floyd. Mixed emotions of anger, pain, confusion, stress and fear as a result of racial injustice are flooding social media and news platforms. The issue of racism at its core warrants conversations between parents and their children, with support by us as Pediatricians now more than ever. As Dr. Thomas J. Nasca, M.D., MACP, CEO of the ACGME stated in his recent letter to the community, “we as physicians bear a special responsibility to respond. It is our collective duty to advocate for all our patients, and to care equally and equitably for all our patients.” The special responsibility he mentions is to also “take on the challenging work required to solve deep rooted societal problems as they manifest in medicine.” Racism is a prime example of such a societal problem.

In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a Policy Statement, “The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health.” In the policy, the AAP addresses racism as a social determinant of health. Children experience what the policy refers to as the “outputs of structural racism through place (where they live), education (where they learn), economic means (what they have), and legal means (how their rights are executed).” 1 The consequence of the inequality of access and attainment in education, based on the disparity of the social environment they grow up in has been shown to negatively impact their health and development as well as set the parameters for how kids understand race.1 Therefore, it is so important that the conversation of racism with children not be ignored. As Dr. Joseph L. Wright, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, a member of the AAP Board of Directors stated in an AAP news release “if we are to progress in this country, it is going to be because we help our children, adolescents and young adults learn not just that racism exists, but that it is something all of us can work together to dismantle. Racism is not inexorable.”2

It is never too early to talk to children about race or racism. Rather, failure to talk openly with children about racial inequity contributes to the development of racial biases. Infants as young as 3 months of age notice race-based differences and begin to express preference by race; by toddler years, they internalize racial bias and begin to apply stereotypes and express biases; and by the age of 12 years it has been shown that most children become set in their beliefs.3

The AAP provides guidance for parents on how to talk to their children in an age-appropriate manner as outlined below: 1, 4

  • Check in with their child regarding what they know, what they have seen and how they are feeling.1, 4
  • Monitor for any changes in their children’s behavior. Children may internalize their feelings, expressing fear or anger. Parents are encouraged to reach out to their Pediatrician and/or mental health provider for additional support. Parents should also be aware of their own emotions and reach out for help as well, in order to develop their own coping strategies to refer to during these moments of heightened emotions. 1, 4
  • Limit screen time and exposure to the news. It is important however to recognize that if questions arise, parents do not avoid discussing the topic of racism. Parents should be encouraged to point out racial bias and stereotypes in the media, movie and/or TV shows. 1, 4
  • Use resources such as books during this teachable moment in history to address and recognize that racism still plagues our country. Children’s books are a practical tool for initiating these conversations. Children not only need to know what individual and structural racism looks like; they need to know what they can do about it. 1, 4 The Reach Out and Read (ROR) program recently took the initiative and will be diversifying the book selection to help support the conversation about race, racism and resistance. Below are links to a ‘Medical Provider Crisis Guidelines6 and a ‘Virtual Learning Resources for Young Learners and their Families7 put together by the ROR of Greater New York.

Pediatricians can play a pivotal role in helping kids and families discuss the current events regarding racism and the protests taking place nationwide. We can help children and their families build empathy and embrace diversity by discussing racism and racial justice during pediatric visits. To do so, we also need to check our own biases, create a culturally safe medical home for our patients, and continue to actively advocate at the local as well as federal level the policies that will bring about advancing social justice and change.1,5 In this manner, our collective voice and action will help reduce the inequities in education, housing and access to health care for all children.


  1. Trent M, Dooley DG, Douge J, AAP SECTION ON ADOLESCENT HEALTH, AAP COUNCIL ON COMMUNITY PEDIATRICS, AAP COMMITTEE ON ADOLESCENCE. The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health. Pediatrics. 2019; 144(2):e20191765.
  2. Jenco, M. (2020, June 1). Dismantle racism at every level: AAP president. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.aappublications.org/news/2020/06/01/racism060120
  3. Anderson, A., & Douge, J. (2019, July 29). Talking to Children About Racial Bias. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Building-Resilience/Pages/Talking-to-Children-About-Racial-Bias.aspx
  4. Heard-Garris, N., & Douge, J. (2020, June 1). Talking to Children about Racism: The Time is Now. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Building-Resilience/Pages/Talking-to-Children-about-Racism.aspx
  5. American Academy of Pediatrics Addresses Racism and Its Health Impact on Children and Teens. (2019, July 29). Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/news/Pages/AAP-Addresses-Impact-of-Racism-on-Children-and-Teens.aspx
  6. Medical Provider Crisis Guidelines: https://drive.google.com/file/d/15wYVQHqlZjuNiWtEYtyGPs6DgpVfx7hV/view
  7. Virtual Learning Resources for Young Learners and their Families: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1893FrURp664uUFmHS0rO1R_f_f9K_4wObzMU9p78oTU/edit