Democratic lawmakers in Ohio have proposed legislation to declare racism a public health issue amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd.
The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus introduced the resolution Tuesday as the state grappled with demonstrations and a coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately affected the black community.
If passed, the resolution would be the first of its kind at the state level, according to the lawmakers. But in the wake of the protests, counties in Ohio and elsewhere have made or are considering similar declarations. One has also been proposed in at least one other state.
“What we are witnessing around the country is a community simply begging to be seen and heard,” said Democratic Rep. Stephanie Howse, of Cleveland, and the caucus president. “Racism is real and it is the biggest public health threat citizens of color face.”
The death of Floyd, a black man who died in Minnesota after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes, has galvanized protesters across the country and called attention to issues of systemic racism.
The caucus says the resolution will officially acknowledge racism in Ohio for the first time — and thus allow it to be fully addressed. But its unclear what its chances of passage are and they acknowledge it will be just the first step in a long road to reform.
The resolution will provide a glossary of terms to describe instances of systematic racism and how it can affect health. It will also call for funding to be put aside to address the impact of racism in the state, whether in education, housing, criminal justice or health care.
“We have to look at this resolution as a way of reeducating the public,” Howse said.
House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, who had singled out Republicans in the state for standing in the way of similar bills in the past, called for her colleagues in the House and Senate to “be on the right side of history" on Tuesday.
Republicans took issue with the criticism.
Sykes' complaints “conveniently overlooks” all of the bipartisan work that has been accomplished over the last year, Republican Rep. Bill Seitz, of Cincinnati, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
In Massachusetts, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley and other elected officials of color outlined a series of steps Tuesday they say are needed to confront systemic racism in the state, including a public health declaration. The city of Boston proposed a public health resolution in early March.
Hamilton County Commissioner Victoria Parks announced this week that there will be a vote within the month on whether to officially declare racism a public health crisis in the third-most populous county in Ohio.
Hamilton is following the Franklin County Commissioners, who decided last month to join their health department in passing a similar resolution, in which they noted that black Ohioans have lower life expediencies than their white counterparts.
That's a point that Gov. Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton, director of the state health department, reiterated during a coronavirus briefing Tuesday.
Recent data shows that for virus-related deaths in which race was reported, 17% of victims were black, even though the group makes up only 13% of the state's population.
The measure currently has the support of House Democrats, and Senate Democrats are also likely to back it. But both houses are controlled by Republicans, and its not clear how many would support it.
Senate GOP President Larry Obhof plans to meet with members of the black caucus next week to discuss the resolution, said spokesman John Fortney.
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