UPDATE: Council Unanimously Passes Resolution Declaring Racism as a Public Health Crisis

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Elaine Hardy speaking at the Feb. 12, 2020, meeting of East Lansing's Human Relations Commission.

UPDATE, Nov. 25, 2020: East Lansing City Council voted at Tuesday’s meeting (Nov. 24) on a resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis in East Lansing. 

Council passed the resolution unanimously after a brief round of discussion of the importance of the resolution. A representative from ASMSU — the Michigan State University student government — spoke during public comment in support of the resolution, as well.

The resolution, which was drafted by the City’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Administrator with input from the Human Rights Commission and Council member Dana Watson, was introduced at the Nov. 17 discussion-only Council meeting.

The resolution makes clear that racism — not race — is responsible for disparate health outcomes, and that it is the way Black people are treated — or mistreated — that makes these outcomes more likely.

The resolution states that, “Racism, not race[,] is often a root cause of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, poor nutrition, violence and mental health concerns for Black people.” 

That extra burden leads to poorer health, per the resolution, which outlines that “Black people in particular suffer from more stress because of experiences with racism. That stress can lead to major health problems such as hypertension, high blood pressure and heart disease.”

This has become a significant issue during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Ingham County, African Americans have a rate of infection of 2,689 per 100,000, while Caucasians come in at 1,998 per 100,000.

Experts have shown that pervasive methods of discrimination like redlining led to racial disparities in wealth. Wealth inequality has in turn led to disparities in access to healthcare and health-promoting activities, making underlying health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, more prevalent and severe among African Americans and/or Black people.

Those diseases are known to increase the risk of becoming very sick or dying from the Covid-19 virus. ELi reported recently that African Americans account for approximately 12 percent of Ingham County residents according to U.S. Census data, but account for more than 22 percent of all deaths from this disease.

The resolution traces the origins of these issues to the year 1619, when the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown, laying the foundation for chattel slavery in British North America and later in the United States. Chattel slavery differed from most forms of slavery that had previously existed elsewhere in the world since it was a lifelong status that was treated as hereditary. 

The resolution points out that “Racism was not dismantled with the end of slavery,” and points to continuing discrimination through the Jim Crow laws following Reconstruction and the Civil War that still impact the way U.S. society is structured today. 

“Racism and social inequities is a heinous social system with multiple dimensions: it is internalized or interpersonal; it is systemic, institutional or structural; and, it is a system of structuring opportunity, advantage and assigning value and worth based on how one looks or social status,” states the resolution.

The resolution also states that racism harms the entire community and hinders economic development.

So, what will the City do to take on the issue of racism affecting health outcomes for Black community members?

The resolution calls on Council to “enhance educational efforts aimed at understanding, addressing and dismantling racism and how it affects the delivery of human and social services, economic development and public safety.”

Council is also committing to collaborate with local organizations and other government entities at the county and state level and “[e]ncourage racial equity training among all community partners, grantees, vendors and contractors,” according to the resolution. 

The resolution does not outline how Council might complete these actions, but three items added from the HRC provide concrete actions that Council can take, including making the DEI Administrator position a permanent one and having the DEI Administrator work with the Human Rights Commission to conduct an annual review of how the City has tried to remedy the issue.

At the Nov. 17 and 24 meetings, Council spoke supportively of the resolution. Mayor Aaron Stephens explained that he envisions the HRC commenting on ordinances and policies to consider them through an equity lens. 

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