Employees Send A Letter To CDC Director About Racism At The Workplace

Jul 13, 2020
Originally published on July 13, 2020 4:40 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than 1,200 employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is a racist culture at the agency. In a letter sent to CDC Director Robert Redfield, a letter that was obtained by NPR, CDC employees say this racism in the workplace is hurting the nation's ability to address the impact of the pandemic on people of color. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has been reporting on this and has more. She joins us now.

Hey, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. So tell us more about this letter. What exactly does it say?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, here's a key quote. The authors write, systemic racism is, quote, "a crushing reality for people of color in their daily lived experiences here at CDC." It lays out seven remedies to address issues of racism - things like increasing diversity in senior leadership, resolving outstanding equal employment opportunity complaints and declaring racism a public health threat. That's been well-established in scientific studies, but it's an area where many say CDC has really seemed to drag its feet.

So the letter was delivered to Director Redfield about two weeks ago, and since then, it has been circulating and gathering signatures from current employees. The latest number, according to my sources, is 1,204. And there are 11,000 workers at CDC, so that's more than 10% of the whole workforce.

CHANG: Wow.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In a brief statement to NPR, CDC confirmed that Redfield did receive the letter and responded.

CHANG: OK. So you broke this story this morning. And I'm curious - what's been the reaction so far?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I heard from several people of color who say they left CDC after being passed over for jobs. I also heard from somebody currently at CDC who suggested support for the letter might be greater if people weren't afraid of retribution.

Senator Patty Murray also weighed in. She's a Democrat from Washington and the ranking member of the Senate Health Committee. And she's really been pushing CDC to do a better job on COVID and racial disparities. In a statement to NPR, she said no one should have to deal with racism at work. But this reporting was, quote, "especially concerning coming from the nation's top public health agency in the midst of a pandemic." And she said she hopes Director Redfield listens to the employees who came forward.

CHANG: Now, I know that you interviewed several former CDC employees for this story. What did they tell you about what it was like to work there as a person of color?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So one story I heard was from Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones. She was a medical officer at CDC for 14 years. She told me she was required to remove a reference to how racism unfairly advantages some groups off of a slide presentation because it made white people uncomfortable. I also talked with Greg Millett, who was an epidemiologist at CDC for 10 years, and he described empty gestures towards diversity, like committees created to look at racial disparities.

GREG MILLETT: They would assemble me, they assembled Dr. Camara Jones and a couple of other Black scientists to basically sit in a room and really not do anything. Even if we thought of things that were meaningful to do, we knew that they wouldn't be funded.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Now, he says those weak attempts to really address racism and racial disparities in health are hurting the coronavirus response since there's an urgent need to better understand and address the reason why people of color are so much more likely than white Americans to get sick and die from COVID-19.

CHANG: I mean, we've all seen in recent weeks how much politics can come into play in public health. Do you think it could be divisive for the CDC to be talking about structural racism now at a time when the Trump administration is not so much talking about that?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I put that question to Millett, and he says it's been so thoroughly documented in medical studies that racism is a root cause of health disparities that it really shouldn't be political. It's just a fact. And he actually said it was a dereliction of the CDC's mission to not acknowledge that fact. He's hopeful this letter and this impressive show of support from within the ranks of CDC might make a change here, and we will definitely be following along.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.