The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sullied and sidelined by President Donald Trump’s deficient response to the coronavirus, now faces an internal revolt against systemic racism.

Citing two cataclysmic events defining this era – the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement – employees are demanding that the agency confront “the widespread acts of racism and discrimination within CDC that are, in fact, undermining the agency’s core mission.”

In a June 30 letter to CDC Director Robert Redfield, more than 1,200 employees called for “7 Acts of Change,” beginning with declaring “racism a public health crisis in the United States.” Even “after decades of well-meaning, yet under-funded, diversity and inclusion efforts,” said the letter, first reported by NPR, “a pervasive and toxic culture of racial aggressions, bullying and marginalization” continues.

While “the connection between systemic racism and poor health has been thoroughly documented by public health experts,” the employees lamented that the “CDC has failed to effectively tackle this problem.”

Robert Redfield

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield, speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Education July 8. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

“The covid-19 pandemic, with its disproportionate impact among communities of color, is just the most recent example of the critical need for CDC to address this issue urgently. Failing to address racism as a fundamental cause of health disparities is a key reason why we have witnessed little progress in reducing many of these disparities in the United States over the past 50 years. The health of the nation urgently demands we do better,” it said.

The agency’s public reaction to the letter was minimal: “Dr. Redfield received the letter and responded. CDC is committed to fostering a fair, equitable, and inclusive environment in which staff can openly share their concerns with agency leadership.”

One former leadership member strongly differs with that description of CDC’s environment.

Carlton Duncan was deputy chief operating officer when he left the agency in 2013, two years after his racial discrimination complaint was settled. On two occasions in 2011, he served as acting chief operating officer. Now retired, the 64-year-old African American lives in Atlanta, where the CDC is headquartered.

“I filed an EEO [equal employment opportunity] complaint against CDC, which addressed disparate treatment when I was passed over twice for the permanent position of chief operating officer,” he said. “As a functional deputy I expected to have equal consideration for the COO position when it was vacated. . . . Both times I was not considered for the position.”

Duncan said he received exceptional performance appraisals. “During that period I received a $10,000 performance award, so if the argument against me was poor performer, by virtue of that type of recognition, there is a disconnect.”

In 2007, a white man was named acting chief operating officer, though he had a General Schedule-15 grade level. Duncan was a member of the Senior Executive Service, the government’s highest civil service level, he said. The CDC did not respond to a request for comment on Duncan’s case.

Fearing reprisals, current employees would not talk on the record. “It’s a very hostile environment, and retaliation is very, very real there,” said one longtime CDC staffer.

Camara Phyllis Jones, a celebrated physician who also has a PhD in epidemiology, started work at the CDC in 2000. She said the racial bias there is “really bad because it stifles genius. . . . There have been so many great people who have left CDC because they just can’t take it anymore.” She left in 2014 and became the 2015-2016 president of the American Public Health Association.

Once a proud and leading public health agency, the CDC has been rocked by outside criticism regarding its role in the Trump administration’s coronavirus pandemic response and stung by shots from the president. Just this week, four former CDC heads wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post with the print headline, “No president has politicized the CDC’s science like Trump.” Also this week, a Trump retweet accused CDC officials of lying about the pandemic. Last week, Trump panned the agency’s school reopening guidelines.

As Trump questions the science the CDC attempts to promote, the employees’ letter says its failure “to address racism as a fundamental cause of health disparities is a key reason why we have witnessed little progress in reducing many of these disparities in the United States over the past 50 years.”

The disparities are evident in the pandemic’s greater rate of injury among black Americans.

In addition to declaring racism a public health crisis, the employees’ “7 Acts of Change” at the CDC include:

Increasing African Americans among senior leaders and in the leadership pipeline.

Taking action against the CDC’s toxic, racist culture.

Dismantling “visible and invisible barriers to career advancement for Black employees.”

Implementing policy changes holding leaders accountable “for measurable change.”

Making implicit-bias staff training mandatory.

Resolving racial bias complaints.

“We are hurt. We are angry. We are exhausted,” the employees wrote. “And ultimately, we fear that, despite the global protests, little will be done to address the systemic racism we face each and every day.”

Citing “daily, racial aggressions,” the letter said black employees “routinely experience bullying, excessive criticism, hostility, implicit bias and overt racism from white colleagues with little recourse.”

That racism, they added, “is a crushing reality for people of color in their daily lived experiences here at CDC . . . that disenfranchises employees with so much talent to offer. The healing must begin now.”

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