Community discusses impact of Washtenaw Health Board declaring racism a public health crisis

Thursday, July 16, 2020 - 10:17pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

The Washtenaw County Board of Health declared racism a public health crisis in a resolution passed in a June 30 meeting. The move follows numerous other states and cities, including Ypsilanti, which passed its own resolution on June 2. In a press release, James Carty, the chair of the Board of Health, explained the rationale behind this decision.

“We know that racism has helped drive unequal economic, cultural, and medical circumstances that each, and in concert, lead to poorer health outcomes for people of color throughout America,” Carty said. “The only way to change this is to acknowledge it and center it as we try to learn from the mistakes of our past and build a better community where all residents of Washtenaw County are served fairly and equally.” 

The move follows several high-profile cases of police brutality, which have sparked protests and outrage nationwide all in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately impacts African Americans in Washtenaw County and around the country. Felicia Brabec, a member of the Board of Health, made it clear that solving the inequities in health care requires more than words.

“This declaration and commitment to health equity – as well as the expected action from the Board of Commissioners are critical to our ability to move forward together,” Brabec said in the press release. “Naming racism and truly working together are vital steps, but we must commit to doing more. We must show our commitment at every level, put resources behind our intentions and work collectively to see meaningful and lasting change.” 

Brabec also sits on the Board of Commissioners for Washtenaw County, which is expected to pass a similar resolution at its next meeting on August 5.

Washtenaw County ranked 81st out of 83 Michigan counties for income inequality in 2018, which prompted the Board of Commissioners to unanimously pass a new equity policy for the county. The policy created a Racial Equity Office and required departments to draft Racial Equity Action Plans. Despite these efforts, 32% of COVID-19 cases are Black residents, who make up 12.3% of Washtenaw County. Zip codes 48197 and 49198 in Ypsilanti, whose population is 27.3 percent Black residents, have over 800 combined cases of COVID-19. By contrast, the four zip codes encompassing Ann Arbor, which is only 6.5 percent Black, have over 500 cases combined. Black residents have cited numerous factors, including poverty and housing instability, as contributing to the disparate impact of COVID-19 on their communities.

Belinda Needham, Public Health associate professor, said she felt this resolution was a start towards mending the inequalities in the community in an email to The Daily.

“I think it’s a really important first step to acknowledge that racism — not genetics, not culture, not health behaviors — is the root cause of racial disparities in many health outcomes, ranging from low birthweight to asthma to heart disease and, most recently, COVID-19,” Needham said. “To undo this system, we have to first identify and then change policies and practices that have discriminatory effects, not just those with discriminatory intent. On top of that, we need to address interpersonal racism and internalized racism, which also negatively impact health. It may seem like a problem that’s too big to solve, but people created racial inequities, so people can undo them.”

Engineering sophomore Temi Akinbola works with EMBRace, an organization in the Public Health School that helps Black youth in Detroit deal with racial trauma. She believes it is important for localities to pass resolutions like this one to address racism as a toll on mental health.

“When most people think of public health, they think (about) health of the physical body and, like, diseases,” Akinbola said “But health also includes mental health, and racism is such a traumatic experience for people of color, especially Black people, (because) it’s so embedded within the system so it affects people every single day. So if you refuse to address that, you’re refusing to address the health of multiple people.”

Emma Schmidt, Public Health graduate student and program coordinator for EMBRace, said she agrees this resolution will help address the harms she sees within public health. She believes that racial socialization, a strategy that EMBRace uses, could be a way to combat racism in public health.

“Our goal is to reduce peer and adolescent stress, particularly racial stress and promote bonding for families and improve psychological well-being,” Schmidt said. “Something that’s really important that we do with our families is racial socialization. So that’s just engaging in race-related behavior and talking about basically what the social consequences are associated with race …. I think this is definitely something that could be deployed by the health department in this (type of) proposition as well.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Dominic Coletti can be reached at dcoletti@umich.edu