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Conn. Cities and Towns Declare Racism A Public Health Crisis: Now What?

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Young people in New Haven protest police violence and systemic racism at an event in June.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis six weeks ago became a catalyst for the current, massive nationwide movement calling for an end to systemic racism.

It’s also led communities to take a deeper look within, specifically racism as the root cause of poorer health care and health outcomes among Black residents. 

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“Many of us are victims of racism, therefore we experience the stresses, the income disparities, the discrimination,” said Darryl Brackeen Jr., alderman for the city of New Haven. “There’s anxiety that’s tied to that, there’s depression that’s tied to that. And there’s so many other medical complications that ethnic minorities experience ... because of segregation and racism.”

Brackeen authored a resolution that declares racism a public health crisis. The city’s Board of Alders unanimously voted it through on Monday.

“We’re going to use the public health crisis as the means to the beginning to do further research so that we can correct the wrongs that were systematically designed to put people of color in the state that we are in in terms of our health,” Brackeen said.

New Haven followed in the footsteps of other cities and towns -- Windsor, Hartford, Bloomfield, West Hartford and New Britain -- that have passed similar declarations. Manchester and Windham voted through resolutions on Tuesday.

Supporters say this is just the beginning, for these resolutions will not be in name only but will result in tangible changes.

They come at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately impact people of color in Connecticut.

Black and Hispanic residents are about three times as likely to contract the coronavirus. State data also shows that they have died at higher rates than their white counterparts.

These kinds of disparities in health outcomes, even before the pandemic, have been linked to denied opportunities and discrimination in housing, employment, education, food, health care, law and civil rights for Black people.

New Haven’s declaration outlines the city’s need to identify activities to enhance diversity and anti-racism principles in its own leadership, staffing and contracting; advance educational efforts on understanding and dismantling racism; boost data collection; support policy that improves health in communities of color; and take other steps to advance racial equity.

In Bloomfield, Mayor Suzette DeBeatham-Brown said the town has forged a partnership with the regional health district to help achieve the steps outlined in its resolution. More than half of Bloomfield’s population is Black.

“We have to find out what are the issues in our town, what are the underlying conditions in our town that we need to address and what’s going to be the best way to address those conditions,” she said.  

Funding these actions will be complicated -- municipalities are facing tight budgets after the first peak of an ongoing pandemic. About a week before Hartford passed its resolution, the city council voted to cut $1 million from its police department and redirect the money to efforts in police accountability, after-school programs and more health and housing inspectors.

DeBeatham-Brown said it’ll be challenging, but Bloomfield must find a way to support its goals, with or without any help from the state.

“Whether it’s to do a community health assessment, whether it’s to partner social services and nonprofit organizations within our town that reach out to different populations, whatever it is that we’re going to have to do to address some of these issues, I believe it’s going to be our job to be creative enough to find the resources to get it done,” she said.

There’s also an educational aspect to the resolutions, municipal officials say. When the idea to declare racism a public health crisis was proposed, Windsor Councilman Don Jepsen said he didn’t immediately see the connection.

But he said it became clearer after he spent time researching, listening to experts and talking with residents about their experiences.

“It all of a sudden made sense to me that we do have a health crisis that stems from this institutional racism, and while I couldn’t get there at first, as I worked through it, it became obvious,” he said.  

Jepsen said he hopes more people learn these truths, too. He also wants the declaration and its goals to be sustainable, not just in the short-term.

“This is something we have to find an institutional way to keep going,” he said, “not just a few people taking the charge and then, oh, they get a job and move away or whatever might happen. Let’s make it institutional so that no matter who takes over the next round, it keeps going.”

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.
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