Butler County supporters ask racism be declared a public health crisis in Ohio


More than 200 people spoke in support of legislation to declare racism a public health crisis in Ohio in a flood of testimony, personal stories and written statements.

Angela Dawson, executive director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health, said in her June 9 testimony that looking at racism through the lens of public health offers a clear way to analyze data and discuss strategies to dismantle and change problematic institutions.

Dawson said the COVID-19 pandemic "pulled back the curtain on the underlying systems that dictate resource distribution, determine life expectancy and delineate where one lives."

The current COVID-19 pandemic data reveals that nationally Black Americans are on average two times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the general U.S. population.

“Today, we are faced with two viruses, one that is physical, and one that is institutional, both are directly linked and life threatening,” Dawson said.

She said this resolution is an important first step which must be immediately followed up with actions to examine, identify and dismantle vestiges of structural racism in our policies, procedures and programs with state government leading the way.

Both the House and Senate are considering non-binding resolutions to declare racism a public health crisis. The Senate Health Committee has held two hearings, listening to proponent testimony from dozens of Ohioans, but the House State and Local Government Committee has yet to start hearings.

Columbus resident and Wright State graduate Selena Burks Rentschler said she’s had white doctor’s dismiss her concerns, including when she was pregnant.

“The sting of not being heard, respected or taken seriously doesn’t fade away,” she said.

While she was living in Dayton at 23 her mother was hospitalized from multiple scerolosis complications in Cleveland. Rentschler said she left her contact information with the doctor but wasn’t contacted when her mother’s condition significalty detreriorated.

“I was robbed of any chance to advocate for my mother’s health and treatment. I was devastated and demanded answers and to speak to a doctor immediately. But it was too late, she died two days later,” Rentschler said.

Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said the active discussion on the resolution has been productive and prompted new bills related to maternal health for minority women, police reforms and other topics.

When asked if he expects the Senate to adopt the resolution, Obhof said “I don’t know but we have had more than 200 witnesses in person and in written testimony. Again, I think the most important aspect of this has been how much of the discussions sparks legislation that is going to actually improve people’s lives on a daily basis.”

Republican state senators attended a one-hour training session last week on race, diversity and bias. Obhof said he intends to incorporate the material into future training for new state senators as well as annual training for staff. Senate Democrats are researching training options.

The training came in response to remarks made by state Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, during the hearing on the resolution to declare racism a public health crisis. Huffman, an emergency room physician, asked a witness if African Americans or “the colored population” were harder hit by COVID19 because they don’t wash their hands as well as other groups.

“Let me tell you, his remarks were not that shocking for many of us who have worked around this issue or in the Statehouse for any amount of time. What we are seeing at the Statehouse is the same structural racism and inequality that is playing out in communities across Ohio as well as in the country,” said House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron. “We are seeing an unwillingness to discuss and often acknowledge that racism is a problem. The refusal to recognize and understand our own biases and an irrational insistent on clinging on to the past. The ground is shifting around us but House Republicans refuse to acknowledge it.”

Sykes and Ohio Legislative Black Caucus President Stephanie Howse, D-Cleveland, criticized House GOP leaders for holding hearings on the so-called Stand Your Ground gun rights bill during a period of civil unrest and introducing a police reform bill without seeking input from African-American lawmakers.

“Instead of navigating this crisis along side members of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, they think they know what’s best for Black Ohioans and they’re going to make the decisions for us and without us,” Sykes said. “Like generations of white politicians before, their plan will fail.”

Howse said racism is a public health crisis – with or without a House resolution – and further study is not needed. Instead, Democratic lawmakers called for action on their proposals to address inequality and racial disparities, she said.

House Dems want to see an increase in the minimum wage, criminal justice reforms, gun safety laws, improved education and breaking down discrimination in various forms. Howse criticized Republicans for advancing bills that would limit the Ohio Department of Health director’s authority, hamper efforts to expand vote-by-mail options and expanding gun rights.

Howse and Sykes said an hour-long training is insufficient.

Southwest Ohio leaders have testified to the detailed ways racism is a public health crisis

Butler County coalition Leading Infant Vitality Equitably, or LIVE, is working to change policies and practices within the communities that negatively affect Black, indigenous and people of color mothers and infants.

(LIVE) says racism is the public health crisis and is calling on Butler County leaders, organizations, and residents to “boldly and authentically” name racism as a national and local emergency that must be “dismantled and eradicated,” according to the Butler County General Health District.

Wendy Waters-Connell, director of the Hamilton YWCA, previously told the Journal-News that YWCAs across Ohio have been working on this initiative to have racism declared a public health crisis for more than a year.

Jackie Phillips, Middletown’s health commissioner, said institutional racism “is a foundation of everything” and touches “every fabric in our society.”

Those hardships and disadvantages include, but are not limited to, reduced health care, fewer educational opportunities and higher disease rates, Phillips said.

“All of that bleeds into the future unless it’s corrected,” she said.

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