After George Floyd's death, Hennepin County declares racism a public health crisis

The town's first Black commissioner stewarded the effort.

July 3, 2020, 5:03 AM

In the aftermath of George Floyd's death while in Minneapolis police custody, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.

Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley, the first Black commissioner in the county's history, stewarded the effort.

"I know how racism is perpetuated through our systems, I know how racist policies and practices show up on the ground -- show up in [the] community -- and we can't sit by and not say structural racism is the problem," said Conley in an interview with ABC News.

The resolution passed in a 7-1 vote.

The sole "no" vote came from Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who said he felt declaring racism a public health crisis would send a message that racism is the biggest problem the county faces, which he does not believe it is.

Hennepin County officials said in a statement that since 2017, the county has "focused on disparity reduction by allocating resources" and "launching training to build staff awareness of internal bias," but Conley said reduction of racial disparities isn't enough.

"It's not about disparity reduction, it's about dismantling disparities and if you want to dismantle those disparities, you can't do that without dismantling racism," said Conley.

Hennepin County's resolution places renewed focus on policies to improve health outcomes for Black, Indigenous and other communities of color, and calls for the formation of partnerships with community groups "confronting racism" and working to bring awareness to issues of racism. It also sets a deadline for the Board of Commissioners to create a timeline to address issues of systemic racism.

Angela Harrelson, George Floyd's aunt, speaks to members of the media gathered outside the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility on June 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images, FILE

Hennepin County, which is where Minneapolis is located, is not the first to designate racism as a public health issue. According to Pew Trusts, at least 20 cities and counties and three states -- Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin -- have already declared racism a public health crisis.

Dr. Martine Hackett, a public health professor at Hofstra University, called Hennepin County and other similar declarations significant.

"The significance of declaring racism as a public health crisis draws the attention needed to be able to recognize that it is at the root of many of the differences that we see in health outcomes, everything from infant mortality to diabetes, to obesity," said Hackett. "It makes us recognize that we need to put the concept of racism front and center to be able to understand why these differences exist."

Discrimination on the basis of race has long been listed among the social determinants of health. Researchers have tied poorer health outcomes for Black patients to institutional racism, including the lack of access to quality health care, like Jim Crow-era segregation that pushed Blacks into low-quality care, and implicit bias on the part of providers.

Hackett believes that national designation of racism as a public health crisis could bring more funding to effectively address these issues and force a reckoning on their history.

"Designations on the federal level are also connected to funding," she said. "They're connected to Medicaid and Medicare, what can be billed for."

"It then forces us to say, 'Where did this structural racism come from?'" added Hackett. "And that forces us to deal with our history and makes us recognize that these differences in health outcomes are not just the result of poor behavior, but are fundamentally built into the system that we live in."

Conley encourages other government bodies who plan to make these declarations to ensure that action is taken to follow it up.

"If other municipalities, cities, counties, states are going to declare racism a public health crisis, you can't just do it because it sounds good," said Conley. "It has to have meat and you have to significantly shift the way that your entity does business or has done business. They can't be status quo."

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