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Last week, Connecticut joined the ranks of states that declared racism a public health crisis.

Last month, The Vermont House voted 135-8 in favor of the non-binding resolution. Two weeks later, the Senate adopted it by a vote of 29-1.

The resolution says that systemic racism affecting public health impacts economic, employment, education, housing and health opportunities and outcomes of minority populations, even in Vermont.

It also says the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened those inequities, and Black and Latino people are three times as likely as white people to die of the disease.

According to the American Public Health Association, “Racism is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks (which is what we call ‘race’), that unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”

According to APHA, racism structures opportunity and assigns value based on how a person looks. The result: conditions that unfairly advantage some and unfairly disadvantage others. Racism hurts the health of our nation by preventing some people the opportunity to attain their highest level of health.

Racism may be intentional or unintentional. It operates at various levels in society. Racism is a driving force of the social determinants of health (like housing, education and employment) and is a barrier to health equity.

APHA notes that to achieve health equity and create the Healthiest Nation in One Generation, we must address injustices caused by racism. We must support actions at all levels to ensure equal opportunity for all.

How do we do that? APHA calls it racial healing. “That means using a healing and heart-centered approach to get rid of the false belief that any people are superior to others based on their skin color,” the association states.

Across the country, more jurisdictions are adopting resolutions declaring racism a public health crisis, citing growing research linking racism to poor physical and mental health outcomes, as well as data showing Black Americans are many times more likely than whites to be killed by police.

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Nearly 200 states, cities and counties had passed declarations.

In its editorial on the vote, Hearst Connecticut Media noted, “Connecticut becomes a better state when it questions its identity. Children of color should see reflections of themselves in classrooms, in workplaces, in the ranks of public safety and in health care.”

It went on: “Lack of representation is one of many challenges in addressing equality, which will never improve through neglect. That’s why we applaud lawmakers showing boldness by declaring racism a public health crisis in Connecticut. … This bill can’t address all manifestations of racism, but health is a wise place to start. This initiative will, among other things, mandate data collection on race and ethnicity in health care; and require the public health commissioner to explore recruitment and retention programs for state health care workers who are people of color.”

Like many states, a commission will submit reports to lawmakers to review what progress is being made.

The Connecticut editorial points out all of this is a valuable history lesson. “There have been eras of profound, but hard-fought, progress in our nation. The 14th Amendment in 1868 granted equal protection to the Black population. President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, opened jobs to all Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 promised equal employment and integrated public facilities. Each of those measures faced opposition, so perhaps it should not be surprising that Connecticut’s latest action was not universally embraced either,” it states.

Tia Taylor Williams, director of APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, which tracks and shares such declarations in an open-access database, said there were relatively few such declarations on the books before the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. However, the combination of his murder and racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths has helped expose the structural nature of racism and accelerated the pace of adoption.

“There are people who will view these declarations as purely symbolic — and in some cases, that’s true — but that symbolism is still very important,” said Williams, who noted that the APHA policy center is working on a visualization project to map racism declarations. “For far too long, as a country, we’ve danced around and flat-out denied the impact and existence of racism.”

We hope these declarations signal a meaningful change — for all.

— Rutland Herald, June 7