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Richmond declares racism a public health crisis. What happens next?

Racism public health crisis
Posted at 6:34 PM, Jul 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-27 18:34:09-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- When gunshots rang out at National Park in D.C. during a major league baseball game earlier this month, Richmond City Councilman Michael Jones said his reaction at the moment is one example of why the city declared racism a public health crisis.

Jones was at the game sitting along the third baseline.

“I’m bothered by the fact that I wasn’t bothered by the gunfire because I hear it all the time right here,” Jones said near a house in south Richmond. “If I’m that way at 53, what about these kids that are growing up in that?”

The resolution makes Richmond the first locality in Virginia to make this public health declaration. The Virginia General Assembly passed a similar statement earlier in the year.

You can read the full text of the resolution here.

“It’s time to take an anti-racist stand; it’s time to get at the systems of inequity,” Jones said.

Jackie Lawrence, the Director of Health Equity for the Richmond-Henrico Health District, said local data show residents in historically Black neighborhoods experience much higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and infant mortality than other parts of the city.

“If you peel back the layers many times, you’ll find the Black community is experiencing underlying illnesses at higher rates,” she said. “I would venture to say that every area of health has been impacted by racism.”

As the resolution acknowledges, policies related to housing, economic fortune, access to fresh foods, and transportation make those health outcomes more likely for Black Richmond, according to Lawrence.

“Many people may think it is only one to one verbal conversations, someone says something derogatory to you. Yes, that is one form. However, this declaration really pointing out the structural and systemic harms that have been done to communities,” she said.

The resolution does not point to specific programs or money that will go toward addressing the real-life impacts of systemic racism on Richmond residents. Instead, it lays out a ten-step process for acknowledging its impacts and partnering with local organizations to address the issue.

Jones said while resolutions do lack teeth, the vote begins the conversation and puts the city on the record to begin investing in communities that have been historically under-funded.

“We can do a ‘both-and,’ but that means equity where we may get a little bit more this budget cycle than the first or second district, and we have to get to a point where we’re fine with that,” he said. “If we just funnel millions of dollars into the same system, we’re going to get the same result. We have to tweak the system, put intentionality within equity, and ensure that everyone who talks about equity doesn’t run when it’s time to be equitable.”

Virginia is one of 15 states to declare racism a public health crisis, according to the American Public Health Association. You can navigate localities with similar declarations here.