Racism and segregation in Ohio and Franklin County have exacerbated a health divide resulting in Black Ohioans having lower life expectancies than White Ohioans; being far more likely than other races to die prematurely (before the age of 75); and to die of heart disease or stroke, according to the Health Policy Institute of Ohio. Black Ohioans also have a nearly three times higher rate of infant mortality, lower birth weights, are more likely to be overweight or obese, have adult onset diabetes, and have long-term complications from diabetes.
Racism, not race, also causes disproportionately high rates of homelessness, incarceration, poor education and economic hardship for African Americans. An emerging body of research demonstrates that racism itself is a social determinant of health.
The Franklin County Board of Health is the governing body of Franklin County Public Health. At their May 12, 2020, meeting, the Board joined a growing number of United States cities and counties by declaring Racism a Public Health Crisis and acknowledged that the health impact of racism in Ohio and Franklin County is affecting our entire community.
According to Dr. Gail Christopher, Executive Director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity, “Our country has a history of enslaving people, committing genocide among Indigenous people, and embracing centuries of institutionalized racism. Yet, unlike other countries that have endured war, sectarian or racial strife, the United States has never undertaken a comprehensive Truth and Reconciliation effort to heal divisions and bring equal opportunities to all communities. Thus, America experiences a significant wealth gap between white families and families of color, the persistence of government-incentivized residential segregation, unequal access to quality health care and affordable housing, achievement gaps in education, and discrimination in hiring practices. Research reveals that the inequities caused by racism cost our nation almost $2 trillion annually in lost purchasing power, reduced job opportunities, and diminished productivity. Research also documents the extent that the conscious and unconscious belief in a racial hierarchy fuels the reluctance of political leaders and policy-makers to acknowledge the inequities and devote adequate resources to addressing them. Our democracy, like others around the world, is based upon full human engagement and action on shared interests of the population. In order to move forward, this nation must heal the wounds of our past and learn to work together with civility, and indeed, with love. We must build the individual and collective capacity to “see ourselves in the face of the other.”
“Much of this work begins by understanding that race is a social construct. Our racial categorization of people has no biological basis. The genome project has proven to us that all humans are 99.9% the same,” said Dr. Arthur James, Board of Health Member. “The racial differences that we measure are the consequence of the cumulative disparate impact of centuries of policies, practices, and systems that have intentionally provided advantage to some while, simultaneously, intentionally subjecting others to disadvantage.”
James continued, “Therefore, how we have built and structured our society has created the differences in the outcomes mentioned above. The good news about understanding that these disparities are of our own making is that such understanding means that it is within our power to “fix” what we have done. The Franklin County Board of Health has taken the initial step of mitigating the impact of racism by acknowledging the historical and contemporary impact of the “opportunity disparity” caused by racism and its influence on the health of African Americans, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups.”
With this declaration, Franklin County Board of Health commits to:
- Create an equity and justice-oriented organization, by identifying specific activities, policies and procedures to embrace diversity and to incorporate antiracism principles across the agency, leadership, staffing and contracting. This will include a plan to understand, address and dismantle racism, in order to undo how racism affects individual and population health and provide tools to engage actively and authentically with communities of color.
- Advocate for relevant policies that improve health in communities of color, and supports local, state, regional, and federal initiatives that advance efforts to dismantle systemic racism.
- Work to build alliances and partnerships with other organizations that are confronting racism and encourages other local, state, regional and national entities to recognize racism as a public health crisis.
“The public health crisis of racism is certainly not a new one,” said Commissioner Kevin L. Boyce. “However, COVID-19 has highlighted the effects of the health divide between black and white Ohioans. The pandemic has exacerbated the health disparities we see as a community and I am glad that Franklin County Public Health is moving forward with a focus on racial equity to improve public health and serve our constituents.”
“Racism may be intentional or unintentional,” said Joe Mazzola, Franklin County Health Commissioner. “We must address injustices caused by racism and we must support actions at all levels to ensure equal opportunity for all.”
This declaration builds on the work of the 2019-2021 Strategic Plan, where the Board of Health adopted “Equity” as the foundation for conducting its daily work.