Last month, Cleveland’s elected officials and nonprofit leaders took to the steps of City Hall to hail a declaration by city council that racism is a public health crisis.
The group included Christin Farmer, who leads Birthing Beautiful Communities, a nonprofit that works with Black expecting mothers. She said she was skeptical and would keep an eye on whether the city’s leaders followed through.
“If we are going to say that this is a public health issue and that we are taking this serious, then I’m holding people accountable,” Farmer told media assembled for the event. “Because my work depends on saving the lives of Black babies every day.”
The idea of treating racism as a public health issue has circulated for some time, well before the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Cleveland City Council introduced its measure in March.
But under the shadow of the coronavirus and amid new protests over police brutality, the notion has taken hold among more local governments in Ohio and around the country.
But it’s not clear what kind of action will follow.
The declarations list health disparities that hit Black communities harder, like life expectancy, infant mortality and lead poisoning. They also point to research in social determinants of health, the idea that what kind of neighborhood one lives in affects access to fresh food, good housing, jobs and ultimately, one’s wellbeing.
They don’t typically codify new policies or allocate funds, but these declarations often appoint task forces to recommend a path forward.
Councilwoman Veronica Sims, who sponsored a health crisis measure in Summit County, said it’s not a one-and-done proposition.
“This is just not one big feast, right, and so we’re going to all get together and eat and then it’s over,” Sims told ideastream. “It’s something that needs to go on until we accomplish the goal of dismantling structural and systemic racism.”
‘A Very Different Moment’
The tumultuous events of 2020 have given momentum to the issue, according to Cleveland State University Professor Ronnie Dunn, the university's interim chief diversity and inclusion officer.
The impact of COVID-19 on Black and Latino Americans, the shutdowns of state economies, the video of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck — all of it has added up in public opinion, he said.
“People being sheltered at home, and almost held virtually captive audiences with their children there,” Dunn said, “I think that made this a very different moment in history.”
The resolutions have won passage in a number of Democratic-majority cities in Ohio, but they’ve also picked up some bipartisan support, too. Declarations in Summit and Cuyahoga counties passed with unanimous support from Democratic and Republican council members.
Smaller, predominantly white cities have taken up the idea, too. The city council in Green is considering one such measure. Commissioners in Piqua, a city of around 21,000 in Miami County, voted this week to pass a resolution.
“The resolution is a starting point,” Mayor Kris Lee, a retired police officer and the city’s first Black mayor, told fellow commissioners. “It is not saying that there is a problem with racism in Piqua. We’re not saying that. We’re saying that there is a problem with racism period, throughout the country.”
The path to passage isn’t always unanimous or straightforward, however.
Lima City Council passed a resolution with one vote in opposition, according to the Lima News. The Mansfield News Journal reported Mansfield city council members delayed a vote on the issue until July 21 to allow more discussion.
‘We Want To See Something Tangible’
Now, the question for cities and counties is what comes next.
Just as emergency declarations come before disaster relief, Dunn said, health crisis resolutions should lead to investment in people hurt by racial discrimination.
“We’ve been remiss to address them in their individual sectors, in criminal justice, in education, in housing,” he said, “so I think looking at it from the health perspective is an astute strategy.”
Dunn suggested measures to help people who were prosecuted in Cleveland for “crack pipe” cases in the years before the city stopped charging possession of drug paraphernalia as a felony. The city could also pass legislation banning racial profiling by police, he said.
Some are looking beyond government, too. Cleveland City Councilman Basheer Jones wants to get private institutions involved. That would mean reversing discriminatory practices and elevating more Black people to management roles, he said.
“Whether it’s hospitals, whether it’s banks, whether it’s whatever it is, we want to see something tangible happen,” Jones said. “We want to see something tangible happen to show us that you truly believe that these practices have had an impact.”
Farmer told ideastream it’s not enough to hold talks about racism without committing to action.
“I think that a lot of times it is a way to make people feel like they’re doing something without them actually having to be accountable to do something,” she said.
For Farmer, “doing something” means spending money on what she calls “Black infrastructure,” that is, African-American organizations that are of and for the communities they serve.
These declarations can’t just be trends, she said.
“Because it’ll come back to bite you,” she said. “Because when it comes time to be held accountable, what are you really doing for your Black citizens in your city, county, state?”