The 32nd Annual Saward Lecture

Featuring Linda Villarosa, Public Health Reporter | Journalist

Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on Health in America

Please join us for the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research Saward Lecture

Monday, November 13th, 2023
7:00pm – 8:30pm
OMSI Empirical Theater
(View Map)

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“What I have found is that if we’re not telling the stories, no one is telling the story.”

— Linda Villarosa

Journalist Linda Villarosa is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, where she covers race, inequality and public health. A former executive editor of Essence Magazine, she is the author of the book Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation.

Under the Skin tells the full story of racial health disparities in America by revealing the toll racism takes on individuals and public health. In 2018, Villarosa’s New York Times Magazine article on maternal and infant mortality, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” caused an awakening. Hundreds of studies had previously established a link between racial discrimination and the health of Black Americans, with little progress toward solutions. But Villarosa’s article exposing that a Black woman with a college education is as likely to die or nearly die in childbirth as a white woman with an eighth-grade education made racial disparities in health care impossible to ignore.

In this landmark book Villarosa lays bare the forces in the American health-care system and in American society that cause Black people to “live sicker and die quicker” compared to their white counterparts. Study after study of medical settings show worse treatment and outcomes for Black patients. Black people live in dirtier, more polluted communities due to environmental racism and neglect from all levels of government. And, most powerfully, Villarosa describes the new understanding that coping with the daily scourge of racism ages Black people prematurely. “Perhaps one of the most important and thought-provoking publications of the year” (Oprah Daily), Under the Skin was named a best book of 2022 by 6 publications, including NPR, and the Washington Post, was honored as one of the top 10 books of 2022 by The New York Times, won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Villarosa’s contribution to The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project highlights race-based physiological myths that have endured in medical practice since slavery. The idea that Black people have a superhuman tolerance for pain began during slavery as a way to justify the institution and to continue torturing Black bodies, and the idea has endured to this day. As recently as 2016, nearly half of medical students and residents still held at least one fallacious slavery-era assumption that Black bodies are fundamentally different from white bodies, including the idea that Black people have physically thicker skin, different nerve endings, or blood that coagulates differently. An expanded version of her essay was included in the book The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.

As a longtime writer and editor for The New York Times, Villarosa has explored many of these issues in reported pieces over the years. She has written about staggeringly high death rates from HIV/AIDS in Black gay and bisexual communities; the disproportionate toll COVID-19 has taken on Black communities in America; and the environmental justice movement in Philadelphia. A 2021 essay focused on the difference in life expectancy in predominantly Black and white Chicago neighborhoods—depending on the zip codes the gap can be as much as 30 years difference.

A member of the Association of LGBTQ Journalists (NLGJA) Hall of Fame, Villarosa has been recognized with numerous awards from organizations including The American Medical Writers’ Association, The Arthur Ashe Institute, Lincoln University, the New York Association of Black Journalists, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. In 2017, her New York Times Magazine cover story “America’s Hidden HIV Epidemic” was honored with an Excellence in Journalism Award from NLGJA. Her 2018 cover story on infant and maternal mortality in Black mothers and babies was a finalist for the National Magazine Award.

Villarosa is the editor of Body & Soul: The Black Women’s Guide to Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being. Her novel, Passing for Black, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.

She is a graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where she is a professor and journalist in residence. She also teaches journalism, English and Black Studies at the City College of New York.

Photo: Earnie Saward

About the Saward Lecture

The Saward Lecture series is named after Ernie Saward, MD (1914–89), medical director of Kaiser Permanente Northwest from 1948 to 1969. Dr. Saward’s pioneering vision and administrative skill helped to launch the health maintenance organization movement. In the early 1960s, he established the Medical Care Research Unit, which later became the Center for Health Research.

The Center for Health Research presents the Saward Lecture once a year, free of charge to the community. The lecture series is made possible with support from Kaiser Permanente Northwest Community Health.

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