CORE asks health board to declare racism a public health crisis

‘We need to relish and lean into that uncomfortable in order to affect change’

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Around the country and in Chatham County alike, structural racism impacts public health outcomes.

That’s what Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity co-chairperson Karinda Roebuck told members of the Chatham County Board of Health at the group’s June 22 meeting — a meeting at which she asked the board to formally designate racism as a public health crisis.

At the session, which was held via video conference, Roebuck read a statement prepared by CORE, a multi-racial group of Chatham residents that brings awareness to personal, cultural and systemic racism through hosting a series of two-day Racial Equity Institute workshops.

Black women are up to four times more likely to die in pregnancy-related deaths than white women, regardless of socioeconomic status and education, the statement said. Additionally, the average life expectancy of African Americans is four years lower than the rest of the U.S. population. And amidst a pandemic, data shows Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at 2.3 times the rate of white people. In Chatham County, Latinx residents account for 47% of the county’s confirmed coronavirus cases, despite only making up 12% of the population.

“Structural racism also affects and permeates other determinants of health, including poverty, the court system, law enforcement, health care, education, banking, housing, and transportation,” Roebuck read. “People of color are measurably and significantly worse off than their white counterparts for almost every indicator of well-being. This burden is felt throughout our nation and also here in Chatham County.”

The week before Roebuck presented CORE’s statement, the Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte commissioners unanimously declared racism a public health crisis. Other public health organizations, such as the American Public Health Association and the American Medical Association, have also declared institutional racism an urgent public health issue.

Roebuck said one of CORE’s concerns is that Chatham County has not directly made a statement addressing the systemic nature of racism.

“The CORE does more boardroom work instead of standing out protesting,” she said. “We do protests, we do rallies but not on a large scale. We protest in the boardrooms — we walk in; we help try to change policies. We discussed approaching the Chatham County Commissioners and trying to find ways that we can actually get our system leaders to be held accountable for racial equity work. And that’s our hope of where we can actually grow in organizing, to not just hold them accountable, but to be a resource as well in this county for these institutions that need help.”

At that June 22 meeting, the board of health unanimously endorsed a motion calling on the Chatham County Board of Commissioners to require the wearing of face coverings inside all Chatham County government facilities, while “strongly encouraging” face coverings in other public settings. After the passage of this motion, the health board also discussed its role in ensuring health equity, referring to the statement Roebuck read during the earlier public input session.

During the board’s discussion, members suggested writing their own statement rather than just endorsing a letter written by someone else. There were questions raised about writing a statement that addressed concerns in a non-political manner. Concluding the discussion, board members Lewis Lampiris, John Kessler and Stephanie Freece volunteered to draft a statement on behalf of the board with Interim Health Director Mike Zelek.

“We know about those disparities, I mean, that’s not rocket science,” Lampiris said during the discussion. “One of the major factors that has led to those disparities are issues of structural racism — so we’re just putting that in there. We can talk about diet, nutrition and healthy foods but bottom line, it’s structures that are in place that are keeping people oppressed. So it’s not a political statement. It’s just an honest affirmation of a condition people living under that we want to eliminate.”

At the time of publication, Zelek told the News + Record there were no updates, to his knowledge, to report. He said communication between board and staff members had taken place to confirm participation but not specifically regarding writing the statement.

“This past month’s board meeting had quite an interest(ing) and full agenda,” he said. “I hope we have more to share in the coming weeks related to the statement and ongoing efforts.”

Accompanying a copy of the statement on the group’s Facebook page, CORE urged members and citizens to continue to ask the board to declare racism as a public health crisis at its next meeting on Aug. 24.

Though CORE hopes to see the board of health make a statement regarding the danger of racial health disparities, Roebuck emphasized that “it’s not enough to simply issue a statement.” Rather, statements and new committees, she said — referencing the Health department’s equity subcommittee and the health alliance — must result in action items. The CORE statement said an important next step would be the initiation of a racial equity resource “to assess potential biases and develop specific metrics, plans, and procedures to reduce racial bias in the public health system.”

“It’s actually incorporating the practices into the entire system, into the entire workflow of each agency,” Roebuck said. “We would like to see policy change — we want to change the culture, and we want to be that resource for them to change that culture. As I always say in racial equity work, there’s always the uncomfortable that is a must, and we need to relish and lean into that uncomfortable in order to effect change.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com.

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