Last year, dozens of communities rushed to declare racism a public health crisis amid the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests against police brutality, both of which disproportionately affect people of color.
More than 200 cities, counties, local governments, public health and educational entities made such declarations since 2020, according to the American Public Health Association – up from just seven in 2019. (At least one city, Holyoke, Massachusetts, has rescinded its declaration.)
And the trend has continued as leaders in Chicago, Salt Lake City and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made similar declarations.
Public health experts and local leaders heralded these declarations as important first steps in addressing the role racism plays in public health but warned that they required action. Although many of the declarations look similar, what steps communities took to address the systemic inequalities vary widely.
In Wisconsin, for example, Gov. Tony Evers called racism a public health crisis during a news conference last June, but he did not issue a formal declaration like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak did.
Though Sisolak’s declaration did not include specific proposals, Whitmer’s executive order required implicit-bias training for all state employees and created an advisory council to examine problems affecting Black residents.
Most of the resolutions are statements of intent that aren’t legally binding, but many include proposed strategies, said Dawn Hunter, a public health lawyer who has analyzed the declarations.
Hunter said the most common commitments fall into six categories: policy and practice; accountability; funding and infrastructure; partnerships and collaborations; specific issues; or a call to action to other leaders.
Some communities have made progress on those commitments, but many are still early in the process of determining how to take action, said Hunter, deputy director of the Network for Public Health Law’s Southeastern Region Office.