Fischer administration, Council discuss declaring racism as a public health emergency

July 29, 2020

‘We must have a new sense of urgency’ to end racism, Mayor says

Two members of the Fischer administration – Kendall Boyd, Chief Equity Officer, and T Gonzales, director of the Center for Health Equity – spoke today before the Metro Council’s Community Affairs, Health and Education committee to recommend the Council and Mayor’s office jointly declare racism as a public health crisis in the city.

“Identifying and working to eliminate structural racism has been a priority for me and my team for over a decade, but there’s much more to be done,” Mayor Greg Fischer said of the recommendation. “Now, as we see people in our streets and in streets across the nation demanding fundamental change, we must have a new sense of urgency to make this declaration and do the hard work of dismantling racism and creating real transformation. I look forward to partnering with Council on this work.”

District 2 Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, who chairs the Community Affairs, Health and Education Committee, and committee member Jessica Green (District 1), as well as Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey (District 3), support the recommendation and asked Boyd and Gonzales to speak at the meeting about options, and ways to educate other Council members and the public on what such a measure would entail.

“The time has come for a community-wide discussion about how we could correct racism as a public health problem. All of us have come in contact with some form of discrimination in our lives. For many people, it causes stress and worry as you try to work, raise a family or just try to get a head in life,” said Shanklin. “If not addressed it can cause many different health issues. We should talk about how to get this out into the open and educate everyone about the physical and mental drawbacks of racism and discrimination in order to treat people fairly and with respect. When we do, we will be on the road to a healthier community.”

Green said: “We as city leaders are focusing much attention on racism and concerns of the protesters over these last months. It is important that we look at all the effects of racism in our city. It is time to acknowledge the impact racism has on growth and development of our children and how we as adults maintain a positive mental frame of mind when all forms of racism can be demeaning to our health and wellbeing.”

And Dorsey said: “From COVID-19 to ongoing health disparities ranging from access to care to the built environment and mental health, we’ve long known these issues have disproportionately impacted and affected African Americans. Acknowledging that racism has and is impacting the health of an entire race of people is not only validation of what those within our community have known, but it declares it to the world. But that is just the first step. My hope and efforts will be focused to ensure that the same resources allocated to other public health issues are allocated to this issue. Identification is just the first step, but the goal is eradication!”

In his testimony today, Boyd detailed how minority populations are disproportionately exposed to conditions such as concentrated poverty, racism, limited educational and occupational opportunities, and other aspects of social and economic disadvantages that contribute to poor health outcomes, including heightened exposure to violence. 

He cited many statistics to underscore the challenge, including the fact that in west Louisville, which has a predominantly Black population, life expectancy is approximately 67 years, while in eastern Jefferson County, which is more than 70 percent white, life expectancy is 82 years.

And as Councilwoman Dorsey said, the COVID-19 pandemic has further illustrated the divide, both in Louisville and the nation. African Americans currently account for 27 percent of the coronavirus-related deaths in Louisville Metro, while making up 24 percent of its population, and nationwide, African Americans currently account for 22 percent of the coronavirus-related deaths, while making up 13 percent of total U.S. population.

The Metro officials noted that Louisville’s declaration could come as a Metro Council resolution, ordinance, or via an Executive Order by the Mayor. Ideally, they said, the Council and Mayor would partner on the declaration and in acting on resolutions and ordinances that improve health in communities of color, and support local, state, regional, and federal anti-racism initiatives and other efforts to advance efforts to dismantle systemic racism.

Boyd noted that several other cities in the country have already declared racism as a public health crisis, including Columbus, Ohio, as well as Indianapolis, Memphis, Tennessee, and Kansas City, Missouri.

And Gonzales pointed out that, as many other jurisdictions are calling for more data and further study around racial inequities, Louisville’s Center for Health Equity has already identified 11 root causes that lead to inequitable health outcomes:

  • employment and income gaps;
  • challenges in transportation;
  • inequities in the built environment;
  • inadequate access to quality food;
  • weaknesses in early childhood development; and
  • issues related to health and human services, neighborhood development, housing, criminal justice, education, and environmental quality.

“Racism is bad for everyone’s health,” Gonzales said. “We need significant and quick action to make sure everyone in Louisville has what they need to thrive.”

Councilwoman Dorsey said Council staff has been gathering information on best practices in other states, focused on the idea that a declaration of any kind must come with resources to address “this health crisis like we would any other health crisis.”

Boyd said after the meeting that the administration’s next step would be to draft a resolution declaring “Racism as a Public Health Crisis” for Council consideration.