Employees blast CDC for agency's toxic culture of racism and exclusion in open letter: 'This must stop'

'Black employees routinely experience bullying, excessive criticism, hostility, implicit bias, and overt racism from White colleagues with little recourse'

                            Employees blast CDC for agency's toxic culture of racism and exclusion in open letter: 'This must stop'
(Getty Images)

Sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody, Black Lives Matter protests have brought renewed focus to the issue of inequality and racial bias in the US. Now employees of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have written a letter demanding that the “ongoing and recurring acts of racism and discrimination” at the agency must be addressed immediately. The letter, addressed to CDC Director Robert Redfield, says that the agency must acknowledge and take immediate, direct action to address the toxic culture of exclusion and racial discrimination, besides dismantling the “visible and invisible barriers” to career advancement for Black employees.

“To be Black and an employee at CDC often means being subject to a toxic environment of racial discrimination that, in many ways, mirrors the larger culture in which we exist. Throughout the agency, Black employees, both here in the US and in countries we support, routinely experience bullying, excessive criticism, hostility, implicit bias, and overt racism from White colleagues with little recourse. These daily, racial aggressions are inflicting profound and enduring damage to our and our careers while violating a tenet of stated pledge to treat all persons with dignity, honesty, and respect. This must stop,” write employees in the letter. “During the past several weeks, we have received messages from agency leaders claiming solidarity with the ongoing protests and calls for racial justice. Though we are encouraged by these messages, their sentiments ring hollow in the face of our daily, lived experiences as employees of this agency,” they add. 

The letter says that after decades of well-meaning, yet under-funded, diversity and inclusion efforts, they have seen scant progress in addressing the very real challenges Black employees experience at CDC, such as the lack of inclusion in the agency’s senior ranks and leadership pipeline programs, a “pernicious old boy/girl network” that stifles Black talent and blocks opportunities for professional advancement, as well as a pervasive and toxic culture of racial aggressions, bullying, and marginalization. It calls for moving from mere talk to action by implementing policy changes that hold leaders and the workforce accountable for measurable change. “In light of the recent calls for justice across this country and around the world, we, as dedicated public health professionals, can no longer stay silent to the widespread acts of racism and discrimination within CDC that are, in fact, undermining the agency’s core mission. As signatories of this letter, we are calling on CDC to take immediate, specific, and measurable actions to address the systemic racism that continues to afflict this agency,” they write.

A Black lives Matter mural that was painted on 5th Avenue in front of Trump Tower in New York City (Getty Images)

The employees have called for establishing and funding an “empowered diversity and inclusion committee” to implement diversity and inclusion initiatives, shape policies, and monitor progress. They have also demanded establishment of advisory committees at the division and agency levels, which will be tasked with assessing employee issues, developing new policies and initiatives, enforcing existing ones, and ensuring staff input.

The letter says that Black representation among senior leadership must be increased and the talent pipeline for future leaders should be diversified. “CDC suffers from an alarming dearth of racial and ethnic diversity within both its senior leadership ranks and its junior pipeline programs. While African Americans are disproportionately affected by many of the diseases this agency works to control and prevent, astonishingly few African Americans sit at the tables of leadership where critical decisions are made concerning these public health issues. Today, Blacks make up just 10% (3 out of 30) of the agency’s senior leadership,” it says. 

The letter, addressed to CDC director Robert Redfield, says that Black representation among senior leadership must be increased and talent pipeline for future leaders diversified (Getty Images)

The public health professionals also allege that there is a culture of exclusion at the CDC. “A system of elitism and discrimination in which hiring managers (who are predominantly White) consistently promote only those employees who share the same backgrounds and racial characteristics. This effectively restricts the advancement of Black employees in the workplace and has resulted in an oppressive monoculture that stifles the growth of Black professionals and inhibits their ability to fully contribute their talents and skills,” they say. 

The employees have asked the director to immediately end the CDC-wide practice of promoting and elevating those within hiring managers’ networks and who share similar racial characteristics. Creating racially diverse committees across grades to oversee the equitable distribution of time off and cash awards and other performance-based benefits is another demand. The letter also suggests establishing mandatory implicit bias training and cultural sensitivity education for all staff.

Echoing the sentiments of many scientists and doctors, the employees have demanded that CDC declare racism a public health crisis in the US. They stress that failing to address racism as a fundamental cause of health disparities is a key reason why the US has witnessed little progress in reducing many of these disparities over the past 50 years.

“The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the Black community. The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. These are just the most recent and tragic markers of the long-festering disease of racial discrimination and oppression in the US. All around the world, multitudes have marched, protested, and leveraged righteous anger to bring about change. Within the Black community, the pain is palpable. We are hurt. We are angry. We are exhausted. And ultimately, we fear that, despite the global protests, little will be done to address the systemic racism we face each and every day,” the employees write. 

“At CDC, we have a powerful platform from which to create real change. By declaring racism a public health crisis, the agency has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the power of science to confront this insidious threat that undermines the health and strength of our entire nation. Yet CDC must clean its own house first,” they emphasize.

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