CDC Employees Call Out A 'Toxic Culture Of Racial Aggressions' : Short Wave Over 1,400 current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) employees are demanding that the organization "clean its own house" of what they're calling a "culture of toxic racial aggression, bullying and marginalization." NPR reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin broke this story and tells us what the response has been from CDC and former employees.

Read the letter and Selena's reporting.

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CDC Employees Call Out A 'Toxic Culture Of Racial Aggressions'

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CDC Employees Call Out A 'Toxic Culture Of Racial Aggressions'

CDC Employees Call Out A 'Toxic Culture Of Racial Aggressions'

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


GREG MILLETT: The COVID-19 pandemic's disproportionate impact on the Black community, the killings of George Floyd...

CAMARA PHYLLIS JONES: ...Ahmaud Arbery...

MILLETT: ...Breonna Taylor...

JONES: ...And Rayshard Brooks.

MILLETT: These are just the most recent and tragic symptoms of the long-festering disease of racial discrimination and oppression in the United States. All around the world...

JONES: ...Multitudes have marched, protested...

JONES AND MILLETT: ...And leveraged righteous anger to bring about change.

JONES: Within the Black community, the pain is palpable.


SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Maddie, this is how a recent letter begins. It was signed by more than 1,400 current employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the country's top public health agency. And the voices you heard were two previous CDC employees who support the authors of the letter.

SOFIA: Fourteen hundred employees - Selena, we should note that's more than 10% of their entire workforce, right?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right, and the letter starts off with this discussion of one public health crisis - racism.

SOFIA: Which, by the way, the CDC does not list as a public health crisis, although as we've talked about on the show, there are absolutely public health experts and organizations that do.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes, and this is something the authors of the letter actually raise. They write this.

JONES: At CDC, we have a powerful platform from which to create real change. By declaring racism a public health crisis, the agency has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the power of science to confront this insidious threat that undermines the health and strength of our entire nation.

MILLETT: Yet, CDC must clean its own house first.


SOFIA: Wow. I mean, that's pretty damning, Selena.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It's forceful - it is.

SOFIA: So what are they pointing to when they say CDC must clean its own house first?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the authors say it stems from three aspects of CDC's internal culture.

JONES: The lack of inclusion...

MILLETT: ...In the agency's senior ranks and leadership pipeline programs.

JONES: A pernicious old boy, old girl network...

MILLETT: ...That stifles Black talent and blocks our opportunities for professional advancement. A pervasive and toxic...

JONES: ...Culture of racial aggressions, bullying and marginalization.

SOFIA: Which brings us to today's show - cleaning house at CDC, how some employees argue that racism within CDC has affected their ability to effectively address racism in public health in the middle of a public health crisis. I'm your host, Maddie Sofia.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And I'm NPR reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin.

SOFIA: You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: OK, Selena, so earlier, you mentioned that the authors of this letter to the head of CDC pointed to specific exclusionary and racist behavior within the organization.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's right. According to the authors, this has been going on for decades. They say that systemic racism is, quote, "a crushing reality for people of color in their daily lived experiences here at CDC."

SOFIA: So were you able to talk to any of the employees who signed the letter?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: No, no current employees at CDC would speak to me about this, even on background. And my sense is that they're really nervous.

JONES: As evidenced by 300 people signing anonymously, people are afraid of retribution. It is not a healthy environment inside.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: But I have been able to interview several people of color who used to work at CDC, like Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, who you just heard from. She said when she first saw the letter...

JONES: It was a feeling of resonance (laughter). It was a feeling of resonance. So I know that this is no exaggeration.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And people who I talked to told me about people of color getting passed over for jobs or their research getting squashed. And in Camara's case, she says she was pushed out.

SOFIA: What do you mean? What happened with Camara?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Camara worked at CDC for 14 years, and when she was there, she was tasked with making a CDC-wide office on the social determinants of health.

SOFIA: Meaning how the social factors like racism can negatively impact your health.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. And housing and access to food and those other aspects of life, and how those come in to impact your health - exactly. But she says...

JONES: We worked on that for a year, and then, all of a sudden, we were told that that would not happen.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So suddenly, her team is left with no mission. But, you know, she believes in her work, so she presses on.

JONES: I presented some of my work on racism and health, hoping that maybe our group, our division would say, well, this is the work that we want to do.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And the key thing here - Camara defined racism in her work as, quote, "a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks."

JONES: Which is what we call race, that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities unfairly advantages other individuals and communities and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.

SOFIA: Yeah, I mean, that sounds right to me. That sounds spot on.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, actually, Camara says she was asked by a higher-up to remove that part of her presentation about how racism unfairly advantages some people.

JONES: And he then continued to say he was not going to clear any of my presentations again unless I took that - unfairly advantages other individuals and communities - off of my slide because that made white people uncomfortable.

SOFIA: Wait. So he actually said because it made white people uncomfortable?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's what she says. And not only that...

JONES: This is long history. It's deep. And there are people inside the agency - at least with me - who said that, if I wanted to talk about these issues, I couldn't do it as CDC official work.

SOFIA: So, Selena, from all of your reporting on this, is this an isolated case? Is this commonplace?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I also talked to Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck about his experience at CDC. And the way he puts it is this kind of suppression isn't the rule but it's also not the exception. It happens. He worked there for nearly 12 years. And within a day or two of the letter being sent to the head of CDC - this letter we talked about - a lot of colleagues started reaching out and asking him...

LAMAR HASBROUCK: What say you? Is this on target? Does it resonate with you? I said, of course it does. It resonates with me. I'm not surprised whatsoever.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He told me that, back in the early 2000s, some of his research was squashed by CDC.

SOFIA: What was he working on, Selena?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He was looking into the differences in homicides by police across race. And he found that Black people were being killed more than white people across the board. And then he wanted to look at the circumstance police listed for the killings in their reports.

HASBROUCK: The highest category was a category called not enough information. And I thought, well, huh - this is curious because, you know, it seems like Black folks are getting killed at five times higher rates - four times higher rates - than whites for not enough information. And, you know, the numbers didn't lie.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So he and his team get the CDC research cleared and start submitting it to national conferences.

SOFIA: As you do.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: As you do. So he goes to places like Harvard to present the study. But then...

HASBROUCK: Went home for the weekend, came back on Monday to learn that it was pulled. So rather than bring me in and say, hey, LaMar, this is what we're going to do, this is why we're going to do it, they just went in the system and deleted and withdrew my paper that was accepted for presentation and without so much of an explanation as to why.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So you can still see a record of his presentation at a Harvard on its website even though CDC, he says, pulled his team's work.

SOFIA: So what did he do, Selena? You know, did he feel comfortable reporting this? Is that even an option?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, LaMar said all of this happened just a few years into his time at CDC, so he had his career to think of. He...

SOFIA: Sure.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...Felt like if he did make a big deal about it, he could potentially be penalized by supervisors or directors in the future.

HASBROUCK: We call them lifers. So they're there for 25, 35 years, and they had long memories. And so if you don't really kind of march, you know, the company line, then that will invariably affect your opportunities for - from assignments, global assignments, promotion, awards - all of the incentives that we work for oftentimes. So I just had to basically swallow it at that point because I was very aware of the stigma or blacklisting that can occur if you make too much of a huff about something.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I did ask CDC about this paper and LaMar Hasbrouck's story and if anybody at the agency had an explanation for why the paper was pulled. And they didn't have the details handy - they noted it was a long time ago - but I was told they would look into it.

SOFIA: Gotcha (ph). OK. You know, Selena, I wonder if he feels like part of the problem is the lack of diversity at CDC among higher-ups - like, specifically. Because, you know, it's on everyone to acknowledge and research racial disparities in health care. But there is an element of being able to understand things better or in a different way if you do have a lived experience. You know what I mean?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right, absolutely. I mean, LaMar mentioned when we spoke the other day that one of the big differences when there are people of many backgrounds is that employees are encouraged by higher-ups to pursue different lines of inquiry - diversity of inquiry rather than having this research just tolerated or even stopped completely. Because LaMar says, yes, CDC has an Office of Minority Health and Equity. But...

HASBROUCK: What typically happens, in my experience - and I've seen this for over a decade - is what I say is the tick-box approach. You get an office, you give it this name, you hire a minority person to run it, and you say all, you know, all cares are good. You know, we got an office for that. But what you'll find is that, oftentimes, that office is under-resourced in terms of staff, in terms of budget, in terms of influence, in terms of mandate, in terms of agenda and in terms of cross-cutting influence.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And, you know, LaMar was also careful to note that this isn't always intentional. People carry and learn implicit biases all the time...

SOFIA: Right, right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...Like you covered on the show last week.

HASBROUCK: And when you begin to diversify the workforce, some of that begins to go away because you have more robust dialogue and you have equals talking to each other versus, you know, a subordinate talking to a supervisor and trying to convince them, you know, that this is the right thing to do.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And this is actually one of the seven acts of change that the authors of this letter and the signatories are calling for at CDC - to increase Black representation in the senior leadership.

SOFIA: Right. And, you know, like, looking at it now, other demands include getting rid of the invisible barriers of advancement for Black employees to, you know, also establish mandatory implicit bias and cultural sensitivity training.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. And the last big point I want to make about all of this is one that Greg Millett told me. He is one of the former CDC employees we heard from at the very beginning of the episode. And he says that we can see the harmful effects of what this letter calls out right now in this pandemic.

MILLETT: We need more Black scientists at CDC who can help understand what's taking place in our various communities. And I think that the COVID-19 crisis really highlights that. You know, CDC has been MIA on race and 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.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Like, what could we be understanding about these racial disparities we see with the coronavirus pandemic that we don't because research into how racism impacts health is being suppressed or not encouraged?

SOFIA: Right. I mean, CDC doesn't have concrete, deeply researched answers because they haven't focused significant research efforts into how racism affects Black, Indigenous and people of color's health in the U.S.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Plus, Camara Jones, who we heard from earlier, 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 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.

SOFIA: So, I mean, has anything changed since they sent that letter? It's been a few weeks, right? What's the response been?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So CDC gave NPR a brief statement saying Robert Redfield had received the letter and responded. And, reminder, he's the head of CDC and the person to whom the letter was addressed.

SOFIA: Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: They also said CDC is committed to creating a, quote, "fair, equitable and inclusive environment in which staff can openly share their concerns." But as far as I know, CDC hasn't actually responded to the specific requests for action or the allegations in the letter or to the allegations that people have told me and that I've reported on.

SOFIA: I mean, I'm not going to lie; that wouldn't exactly be encouraging for me if I was an employee making these demands or trying to have these discussions.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, and it's not for Camara as a former CDC employee either, which is why she's since spearheaded an effort for allies outside of CDC called Friends of the Seven Acts of Change (ph) to support the employees. And the hope is that the outside support encourages current CDC employees and helps build traction and that at the same time, as CDC addresses racism and public health nationally, it also turns inward, because I think people sometimes forget that Science - capital S - is done by humans who are fallible and have biases...

SOFIA: Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...At the end of the day.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, something that gets lost in these conversations is that scientists are people, and people deserve respect and a fair and equitable workplace - period, end of sentence, that's the whole tweet.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. I think CDC tries to stay above the political fray to portray itself as an agency filled with the best scientists doing the best research and putting forward this unified kind of faceless front. And that's supposed to build public trust, but I think this letter shows that this organization, like all organizations, is filled with human people. And the fact that Black scientists at CDC felt compelled to break this faceless front to talk about their experiences really speaks volumes.


SOFIA: All right, Selena Simmons-Duffin, I appreciate you and I appreciate your reporting.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you, Maddie.

SOFIA: If you want to read the full letter and more of Selena's reporting, we'll link to it in our episode notes. Today's episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Brit Hanson. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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