Saying it’s time to step up both acknowledgment and action, Franklin County Commissioners have declared racism a public health crisis.
They urged state leaders to follow.
“This resolution also calls on the governor, the speaker of the house and the president of the senate to join us,” Commissioner Kevin Boyce said Tuesday. “At some point, our leaders have to join us in this fight.”
The declaration comes just days after Franklin County Public Health adopted a similar statement, one in the works well before the coronavirus outbreak.
The commissioners’ resolution called the pandemic’s disparate effect on African Americans locally and across Ohio “a contemporary example” of poor health outcomes arising from longstanding social inequities.
“We hear more and more that people are clamoring to return to normal,” Joy Bivens, director of the county Department of Job and Family Services, said during the commissioners’ meeting. “Our community can never return to normal. Normal was not working for them. Black people and people of color were in crisis before COVID hit our community.”
Dr. Arthur James, a member of the county health board, told the commissioners that the declarations are part of a growing effort across the country to recognize imbalances rooted in racism and segregation, and that have persisted over generations.
The first Africans were brought to the United States 401 years ago, James said, and 86% of that history has been marked by either slavery or Jim Crow laws.
“The dominating narrative is that the disparities occur because of group-level flaws,” Arthur said. “This declaration acknowledges that this is not the case. The playing field has never been level.”
Commissioners formally embraced the need to address racial disparities as part of a poverty-fighting plan announced about a year ago. The latest declaration by the all-Democrat trio calls for more work to identify goals and to support training, policies and efforts aimed at reducing race-based inequities in health and well-being.
An emerging body of research, the resolution says, “demonstrates that racism itself is a social determinant of health.”
The document notes that African-Americans in Franklin County experience “dramatically higher” rates of unemployment, poverty and incarceration. They are less likely than whites to own homes and far more likely to live in neighborhoods with low-performing schools.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, blacks in Franklin County also have been disproportionately represented in cases and hospitalizations. They already faced lower life expectancies, along with higher incidences of infant mortality and risks from heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
“We salute you for addressing the elephant in the room, which is racism,” said Nana Watson, president of the Columbus chapter of the NAACP.
Commissioners said the declaration must lead to change.
“We’ve pushed so that people are talking about race in this community,” Commissioner Marilyn Brown said. “But talking isn’t enough.”