New Jersey moves closer to declaring racism a public-health crisis

TAYLOR JUNG | DECEMBER 13, 2021 

NJ Spotlight News

People wait for a distribution of masks and food. A poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely than white Americans to have experienced job and other income losses due to the pandemic.

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New Jersey has been grappling with how to dismantle systemic racism — or how white supremacy has created disadvantageous structures for Black and brown communities — for the past year and a half, ever since the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide.

While the country was energized with rallies against police brutality and the legacies of enslavement, Black and brown communities were dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

For legislators like Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, as well as other members of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, one way to break down the system is by declaring racism a public health crisis.

“The pandemic has definitely emphasized the inequalities in health services, and we must push the system into helping more vulnerable groups and those who were wrongfully dismissed,” McKnight (D-Hudson) said. “Until we actually recognize it and acknowledge it, we are just putting Band-Aids on people saying that we are fixing it.”

In July 2020, McKnight introduced a resolution (AR-175) to assert that systemic racism creates barriers for Black and brown communities in the country’s medical and public health systems. Her resolution outlines extensively how Black Americans face higher mortality rates from certain diseases and higher instances of maternal and infant death. At the same time, they face greater use of force from police and are poorer than white Americans.

The Senate counterpart to the resolution (SR-127) was just cleared by the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee on Jan. 6.

If the resolution is passed by the full Legislature, it would not only confirm that New Jersey recognizes the existence of racial inequality and its impact on health outcomes, it would also add the state to a list of over 200 similar declarations across 37 other states, according to analysis by the American Public Health Association. It’s a move that the borough of Leonia already made in May 2020. The list includes organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Joe Biden also made a similar declaration when unveiling his strategy to end HIV/AIDS on Dec. 1.

Important to acknowledge

Rutgers School of Public Health Dean Perry Halkitis says it’s important to state that racism is a public health crisis: It relieves Black and brown communities of negative stereotypes, that they somehow are responsible for their own worse health outcomes.

Halkitis’s department, alongside RWJ Barnabas Health and others, made a similar declaration last year.

“Racism is a structural impediment to the wellbeing of populations of color, because people of color are not afforded the same opportunities in their education, in their health and in their wealth as white people are,” he responded, when asked why racism is a public health crisis.

“Racism creates the conditions for poorer health,” Halkitis said.

He added that declarations such as this can “establish the norm for people to think about how we undo the racism.”

While the resolution does not include action items for the Legislature or Gov. Phil Murphy, McKnight and New Jersey Black Legislative Caucus Chairwoman and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter both say the resolution is just one piece of the legislative puzzle that the caucus members across several committees are working on to prioritize social justice, such as their work with first lady Tammy Murphy to address the Black maternal and infant mortality.

“Housing insecurity, transportation insecurity, food insecurity and low wages. None of these things work in a silo,” Sumter said. “They all come together to pile onto the structural and systemic racism that was inherent in New Jersey, dating back to the 17th century when Bergen County had some of the highest number of slaves in the state of New Jersey.”

And for McKnight, the resolution is a key part of her work during this lame-duck session in Trenton. She has requested it have its second reading in the Assembly, so it too can potentially be released just as its Senate companion was. It’s her goal to keep pushing it forward, so she is able “to call out racism, to put more pieces of legislation to combat racism.”

Defining racism is a complex task. Social-justice advocates balk at dictionary entries, which they say fail to name sociopolitical and historical white supremacist actors. A resolution like this, though, focuses on racism’s human impact, demonstrating its toll on Black lives.

“(Racism is) inequality, implicit bias, not being fair — blatantly not seeing Black and brown people as who we are, because we are human,” McKnight said. “Racism is a form of not seeing a Black person as who he or she is.”

“For Black people, it’s a daily trial and tribulation,” Sumter said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-13 03:42:09 -0800