51st Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: Dr. David Williams

This is the first in a series of profiles of speakers at SECF's 51st Annual Meeting, an online event taking place November 11-13. Registration opens next week!

The two dominant stories of 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic and a national reckoning on racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd – will both be reflected throughout the 51st Annual Meeting, from the virtual keynote stage to several breakout sessions.

Both topics, and the intersection between them, are familiar to this year’s Opening Keynote speaker, Dr. David Williams.

Williams, a professor of public health and chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is one of the world’s leading experts on the social determinants of health, a list that includes socioeconomic status, race, stress, racism, health behavior and religious involvement. 

Through his research, Williams has found that experiencing racism itself leads to negative health consequences – for example, Blacks with college degrees have a lower life expectancy than whites who only have a high school diploma.

“When I started my career, many people believed that it was simply about racial differences in income and education,” Williams said in his TedMed talk, How Racism Makes Us Sick. “I discovered that while economic status matters to health, there is more to the story.”

Central to Williams’ research has been his work to quantify racism – not only major experiences like unfairly losing a job or being wrongly stopped by the police, but also everyday indignities that, over time, have real health consequences. The Everyday Discrimination Scale he devised in 1997 to measure experiences like these is still used today.

“We measure self-esteem. There’s no reason why we can’t measure racism if we put our minds to it,” he said.

Another type of discrimination people of color experience, Williams says, is medical discrimination – all other things being equal, Blacks and Latinx people are likely to receive lower quality medical care than whites, often due to implicit biases held by health professionals.

“If you hold a negative stereotype about a group in your subconscious mind and you meet someone from that group, you will discriminate against that person,” he said. “You will treat them differently. It’s an unconscious process; it’s an automatic process. It is a subtle process but it’s normal and it occurs even among the most well-intentioned individuals.”

Williams sees himself as an example of what can happen when society acts to counter such biases. Born in St. Lucia, he came to the United States in the 1970s and was able to study at the University of Michigan thanks to a minority fellowship – Williams calls himself “an affirmative action baby.”

In the years since, he has become a leading scholar and speaker on the intersection between racism and public health. It’s a role, he says, he is proud to put to use in order to help dismantle racism in the United States. 

“I deeply appreciate the fact that I am standing on the shoulders of those who have sacrificed even their lives to open the doors that I have walked through,” he said. “I want to ensure that those doors remain open and that everyone can walk through those doors.”


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