Washtenaw defines racism as public health crisis

Wednesday, July 1, 2020 - 7:15pm

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File Photo/Daily

The Washtenaw County Board of Health passed a resolution Wednesday morning declaring racism as a public health crisis. This resolution comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, calls from residents in Ypsilanti to defund the police department and nationwide protests of police brutality following the death of George Floyd, who was killed at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis last month. 

According to the resolution, Washtenaw County has been tracking racial disparities in health for more than 18 years and has found these disparities have been increasing in many areas of the community.

“The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing racial inequities and further highlighted racism as a root cause of poorer health and continues to disproportionately cause devastation and death among people and communities of color,” the resolution reads.

James Carty, Board of Health chair, said in a press release that the only way to address the ongoing issue of racism is to acknowledge that it exists and learn from past mistakes. 

“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.”

Felicia Brabec, Board of Commissioners member and Health Emergency Response Coalition member, said in a statement that commitment and action from the board are critical for the progress that needs to be made. 

“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. “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.” 

The resolution states that the Washtenaw County Health Department is committed to address inequities in employment, education, housing, neighborhood, public safety, food access, air and drinking water quality and health care. 

“We value all people equally,” the resolution reads. “We promote the improvement of living conditions in which community members are born, grow, reside, work, play, learn and age. We strengthen partnerships with community members that aid in community empowerment through community capacity-building, organizing, and mobilizing. We name racism and other -isms as a barrier to health equity and social justice.”

The Board of Health aims to use resources to deepen its work in solidarity with social movements for racial justice and work with community members, organizations and leaders engaged in anti-racist action to address these problems of racial inequality and use community based solutions to enable change, according to the resolution. 

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, set to meet again later this week, emphasized their focus and commitment to make change within the Washtenaw County community. 

Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, Washtenaw County communications and health promotion administrator, told The Daily in an interview what public health means to the department. 

“It’s important in a lot of ways that this issue isn't new,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “There’s a lot of things happening both socially and with health, as a department (of) public health at its roots has this foundation of striving to create health opportunity and equity for everyone.” 

Ringler-Cerniglia said the board has not met since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic but that they felt strongly about making this statement. 

“They wanted it to be more than just a statement,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “They also wanted to make sure that there was action in there and (to) make sure that there was a will to put forward resources and commitments and to support us as a health department in doing that.” 

Summer News Editor Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu.