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Local supporters urge racism declared public health crisis in Ohio

Ohio Statehouse
Ohio Statehouse

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."

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The current COVID-19 pandemic data reveals that nationally, Black Americans are on average two times more likely to die of the virus 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 doctors 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 age 23, her mother was hospitalized from multiple sclerosis complications in Cleveland. Rentschler said she left her contact information with the doctor but wasn’t contacted when her mother’s condition significantly deteriorated.

MORE: Half of Ohio pregnancy-related deaths preventable, report shows

“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.

She said she can’t go for a jog without feeling anxious, that her heart jumps when she sees a police cruiser drive right behind her, and doesn’t feel safe getting pizza from a local restaurant without feeling the threat of white supremacy.

“And some of you say, with a straight face, that racism isn’t a public health crisis? And those who disagree with this being declared a public health crisis, would you ever trade places with me and live the life I lived, even if I offered you all the money in the world?” she said.

Shannon Isom, president and CEO of YWCA Dayton and President of the Ohio Council of YWCAs, said “declaring racism as a public health crisis is the long-term policy response that can outlast this particular moment, redress the wrongs of the past, and shepherd us into a healthier, more equitable future.”

Chris Kershner, CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said in his testimony that “we can say we are against racism, but what are we going to do about it?”

“The Dayton Area Chamber commits to increased dialogue and awareness of racial injustices, further education for employers and employees to improve diverse and inclusive workplace practices, continued advocacy and leadership in the growth of minority-owned businesses and enhanced engagement with minority business leaders, and strengthened partnerships with the African American community to work against racism.”

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.

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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. Like generations of white politicians before, their plan will fail,” Sykes said.

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.