A wave of declarations across the U.S. is condemning racism as a public health crisis

Over 200 cities, counties and leaders across the country have declared racism a public health crisis. According to experts, decades of systemic racism continue to negatively impact the overall health of people of color.

Most recently, the Board of Supervisors in Orange County, Calif., declared racism a public health crisis last month. The county saw hate crimes increase by more than 150% in 2021, mostly affecting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

“Experiencing racism has been associated with increased risk for numerous mental and physical chronic health conditions, like heart disease, cancer, asthma, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetics and suicide,” Doug Chaffee, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said during the meeting in December.

Declarations in cities such as Cleveland, Las Vegas and Philadelphia came after the social unrest sparked by the 2020 killing of George Floyd and the coronavirus pandemic that impacted minorities at an overwhelming rate.

“The country watched George Floyd be murdered, and you saw so many of the institutional and systemic issues that we have been talking about as a community for so long. It was a reckoning, it was pretty much hard to deny,” Regina Davis Moss, associate executive director at the American Public Health Association, told Yahoo News.

Experts at Boston University determined that a public health crisis is defined by three requirements, including whether it impacts a large number of people, threatens one's long-term health and requires the adoption of large-scale solutions.

“When people don’t have the resources and opportunities to realize their full health potential because of the color of their skin or because of their race, that becomes a public health crisis,” Moss said.

In Buncombe County, N.C., government officials are hoping to set an example after declaring racism a public health and public safety crisis in 2020.

Since the declaration, the county has formed a racial equity action plan and an equity and human rights office and hired dozens of people to assure that all policy system changes in the county go through an equity analysis.

“Unfortunately, the disparities, when you think about the data, it takes time, it’s gonna take time to move the needle on those. So we haven’t seen any drastic changes in the numbers; what we have seen is coming together as a community, to work to move and work towards it,” Dakisha Wesley, assistant county manager of Buncombe County, told Yahoo News.

In 2019, Milwaukee County, Wis., became the first jurisdiction in the country to declare racism a public health crisis. Several studies show that Milwaukee County is the second unhealthiest county in the state, and government officials believe that achieving racial equality will help change that.

“For generations, governments at all levels have unequally distributed health care access, opportunities for high wage jobs and education access. Milwaukee County is no exception. For generations, we’ve played a part in the poor health outcomes we see around us, so moving forward, we’re committing ourselves to being part of the solution,” David Crowley, Milwaukee County executive, told Yahoo News.

But it’s not just counties declaring racism a public health emergency, “it’s also hospitals and health systems and institutes of higher education. These are all different kinds of entities that continue to issue declarations,” Dawn Hunter, director of the Southeastern Region Office of the Network for Public Health Law, told Yahoo News.

At the federal level, Sens. Sherrod Brown, Cory Booker and Alex Padilla are making a second attempt to pass a Senate resolution to declare racism a public health crisis nationwide. On Dec. 20 the senators reintroduced the legislation that was first brought by Vice President Kamala Harris, then a California senator, in 2020.

The proposal notes the inequities facing people of color in America, including lower life expectancy rates for Black and Native Americans than for white Americans, and a higher likelihood of infant mortality.

"For too long, communities of color have suffered disproportionately from countless illnesses and conditions, from maternal and infant mortality to chronic diseases," Booker, D-N.J., said in a press release. "These health inequities are the direct result of centuries of racist policies that have disenfranchised, disinvested, and disrespected Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. Declaring racism a public health crisis is a crucial step toward addressing the deep-rooted and systemic inequities that continue to exacerbate health disparities in our nation."

Also in 2020, Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Barbara Lee of California, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced a bill aimed at addressing the public health impacts of racism through two programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now that racism has been named an emergency in several parts of the country, experts say the work to address racial inequities must follow.

“That formal title that was placed on it [racism] opens up a lot of opportunities for those of us who work in public health,” Rebecca Jones, faculty associate at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio, told Yahoo News.

“Some cities and states and municipalities across the country are using it as a way to prioritize how they spend dollars and invest in their infrastructure and programming,” she said.

In the meantime, more local leaders are pushing to declare racism a public health crisis.

“We may not in our lifetime see the fruits of [our] labor. But I think for me, it’s more generational. Our children, our grandchildren, will live in a different place and live in an America where everybody can thrive,” Wesley said.

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