CDC Employees Call Out Agency's 'Toxic Culture Of Racial Aggressions' | KGOU
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CDC Employees Call Out Agency's 'Toxic Culture Of Racial Aggressions'

Jul 13, 2020
Originally published on July 13, 2020 5:20 pm

Updated 6:15 p.m. ET

More than 1,200 current employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have signed a letter calling for the federal agency to address "ongoing and recurring acts of racism and discrimination" against Black employees, NPR has learned.

In the letter, addressed to CDC Director Robert Redfield and dated June 30, the authors put their call for change in the context of the coronavirus pandemic's disproportionate impact on Black people and the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks. NPR obtained a copy of the letter, which is published below.

"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," the letter reads.

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. - Letter from CDC employees to Robert Redfield

The letter offers a rare glimpse inside a famously opaque federal agency, where career staff often work for decades and information is carefully filtered to the public through the press office.

Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, who was a medical officer at the CDC for 14 years and remains in contact with current employees, says that after the letter was sent to Redfield, it was circulated among the 11,000-person workforce for signatures.

As of Monday afternoon, 1,204 staff members had signed the letter — more than 10% of the agency's workforce — and the number of signatories is growing, Jones says. She adds that at least one division head signed, and about 300 employees chose to endorse the letter anonymously. Only current CDC employees could sign the letter, and each person could sign it only once, according to Jones. Any CDC employee could sign, not just people of color. The racial breakdown of the signatories was not known.

In a statement to NPR, a CDC spokesman acknowledged that Redfield received the letter and responded to it, adding, "CDC is committed to fostering a fair, equitable, and inclusive environment in which staff can openly share their concerns with agency leadership."

Jones says her understanding is that Redfield's response did not address the specific requests for action in the letter. "I find that disheartening and disrespectful," she says.

In the letter, the authors point to a variety of "well-meaning, yet under-funded" efforts to diversify the agency's workforce over the past several decades and assert that none of them have made much difference. They note that Black employees represent only 10% of senior leadership and 6% of the CDC's 2019 class of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a fellowship program described as "the training ground for tomorrow's leaders within the agency."

It describes an "old boy/girl network," where white managers promote white staff while allegedly stifling and discouraging Black staff, and a "pervasive and toxic culture of racial aggressions." It also says that hundreds of Equal Employment Opportunity complaints have been filed by Black employees in the past decades, many of them unresolved.

"Systemic racism is not just a concept perpetrated outside these walls," the letter reads. "It is a crushing reality for people of color in their daily lived experiences here at CDC."

The authors make seven demands for action, including diversifying senior leadership, addressing racism in the CDC's culture, and publicly declaring racism a public health crisis in the U.S.

The CDC has stumbled in its attempts to address the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black Americans and other communities of color. Although data are incomplete, Black and Latino people in the U.S. are at least two times more likely than white people to die from COVID-19 and three times more likely to get sick.

Congress required the CDC to report data to lawmakers about COVID-19 and racial disparities. But the agency's first report, sent to lawmakers in May, was panned by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., as a "lazy, four-page copy and paste project" that mostly consisted of links to CDC webpages. The agency's follow-up in June was longer, but also "incomplete" and "still inadequate to the task at hand," according to a written statement from Murray.

"CDC has been MIA on race and COVID-19," says Greg Millett, who worked as a senior scientist there until 2009 and is now at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.

"I think that it's telling that here I am, sitting on the outside, a former CDC employee, and I've been able to scoop the agency [...] in the data that I've been able to publish on COVID-19's impact on African Americans," he says. "CDC has still not really come up with anything meaningful about what's taking place in Black and brown communities around COVID-19. That to me is shameful, and shows that the scientists who are there who can do that work are not necessarily being empowered to do that work."

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

Failing to address racism's role in causing health problems, the authors say, "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."

Jones, who left the CDC in 2014, says she feels encouraged to see Black employees organizing to effect change. "When I first saw the letter, it was a feeling of resonance," she says. "I know that this is no exaggeration."

Her own work was on racism and public health, and she says she felt thwarted and undermined in her attempts to get the agency to address these issues. She says after a lunchtime presentation she gave on racism, she was asked to remove references to how racism " 'unfairly advantages other individuals and communities' off of my slide because that made white people uncomfortable."

After she left the CDC, she served as president of the American Public Health Association and taught at the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Although Millett personally felt supported by mentors during his time at the CDC, he says the environment described in the letter resonated with him, too. He's supportive of the letter's organizers and hopes it can lead to change at the agency.

"We need more Black scientists at CDC who can help understand what's taking place in our various communities," he says. "I do feel that we're on the precipice of actually changing something here."

Jones is less hopeful. She says there are troubling consequences to the sidelining of Black scientists at the CDC, including from working on the impact of COVID-19 on their own communities.

"We are squandering genius," she says. "We're squandering insight. We're squandering talent within CDC that could then lead CDC's mission to address the health issues of the nation."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Much of the workforce at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is criticizing the agency. A letter signed by more than 1,000 employees describes a toxic culture of racial aggression in the CDC. NPR has obtained that letter, and its allegation of bias is very relevant since the CDC is battling a pandemic that statistically has been striking people of color harder than others. NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin obtained the letter and is on the line. Good morning.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What case does this letter make?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it talks about the disproportionate impact of COVID on people of color that you mentioned, that the CDC should declare racism as a root cause of those disparities. And then it says, quote, "yet CDC must clean its own house first." It goes on and says we, quote, "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." And then it outlines seven remedies, from disrupting the old boys club that promotes mostly white employees to increasing Black representation in senior leadership and more. And we've published the full seven-page letter at npr.org.

INSKEEP: Well, who are the people who signed it?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I talked to Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones. She was a medical officer at CDC for 14 years and is still in touch with current employees. She told me 1,007 people had signed as of Sunday evening. The agency has about 11,000 employees, so that works out to be 9% of the workforce. She said you had to be a current employee to sign, you could only sign once, and any employee could sign, not just people of color. So it's not clear what the racial breakdown of signatories is. And I should note that the signatures were gathered after the letter was presented to agency Director Robert Redfield, and they're still being gathered now.

INSKEEP: Well, how is the CDC answering this charge of, basically, structural racism within the agency?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: CDC gave NPR a brief statement acknowledging that the letter had been received by Redfield and that he had responded and that the agency is committed to creating a, quote, "fair, equitable and inclusive environment in which staff can openly share their concerns." I understand that Redfield did not respond to the specific requests for action or the specific allegations in the letter.

INSKEEP: OK. What is it that people are saying, in a little more detail, about what is happening inside this agency?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, no current employees at CDC would speak to me about this, even on background. My sense is that they're really nervous. But I did talk to some former CDC employees, including Jones, who I mentioned earlier. Here is what she said about her initial reaction.

CAMARA PHYLLIS JONES: When I saw the letter, it was a feeling of resonance. It was a feeling of resonance. I know that this is no exaggeration.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I also talked with Greg Millett, who was a senior scientist at CDC and is now at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. The letter resonated with him, too, though he personally had strong mentors at CDC. He said he's found CDC unwilling to engage with the reality of racism in public health, and in the coronavirus pandemic, he says that's a real problem.

GREG MILLETT: CDC has been MIA on race and COVID-19. That to me is shameful.

INSKEEP: Well, Selena, let's get the facts out there, then. How big is the disparity between people of color and others?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the data are incomplete, but it looks like Black and Latino people in the U.S. are at least twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. And Jones says if Black scientists at CDC aren't being empowered to work on these disproportionate impacts and are instead having to deal with workplace racism...

JONES: We are squandering. We are squandering genius. We're squandering insight. We're squandering talent within CDC that could then lead CDC's mission to address the health issues of the nation.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says CDC should seize this moment, and she's not that confident that it will.

INSKEEP: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks so much.

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