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Cities Across Country, Including Denver, Declare Racism A Public Health Crisis

Rae Solomon
Protesters at a White Coats for Black Lives event in Denver.

Cities and counties across the country are declaring that racism is a public health crisis, including at least one city in the Mountain West.

This week, Denver’s city council voted unanimously to “acknowledge that the effects of intergenerational racism are a public health crisis ... and advocate for racial justice as a core element of Denver’s policies, programs and procedures.”

“We can talk about police brutality, we can talk about unjust systems, but if we don’t acknowledge that racism still sits at its core, then we’re missing the point," council member Jamie Torres told The Denver Channel.

James Hodge, a public health law professor at Arizona State University, said legally speaking, calling it a “crisis” doesn’t carry as much weight as calling it a public health “emergency.”

“A proclamation from the city council actually doesn’t change -- legally -- much,” he said. “If Denver’s mayor declared a public health emergency, assuming that he or she had the capacity to do so, or the state of Colorado did that, that makes a big difference as far as what government’s prepared to do to respond.”

Such crisis proclamations don’t marshall resources the way an emergency declaration does, but Hodge said they are still meaningful.

As Denver city council member Stacie Gilmore put it, “This doesn’t change any of our policies, but words matter. It matters that we haven’t had an acknowledgement of what is America’s original sin. It’s our greatest sin. And we have to document that so that we know how we’re gonna evaluate ourselves -- how you evaluate if we’re doing what we say we’re going to do.”

As The Guardian reported, public health experts have viewed structural racism as a crisis for a long time.

“The very first step toward solving any problem is to admit that you have a problem and to take responsibility not just for addressing it, but for your own part in perpetuating it,” said Doug Blanke, who directs the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Minnesota. “In a way, that’s what these resolutions do.”

Last May, Milwaukee was reportedly the first U.S. city to declare racism a public health crisis. 

“I think the match has been lit,” said Blanke. “What matters going forward is finding practical, meaningful, durable ways of implementing this intention … How do we not just dismantle the structures of racism but build new structures that will work against racism?” 

Blanke said it isn’t yet clear what measures might do so.

“Most states have a process where there’s an analysis of what the economic impact of that legislation would be,” he said. “Do we need some similar standing mechanism to also evaluate what the impact would be in terms of racial justice?” 

As Kesha Moore with the NAACP Legal Defense And Education Fund has written, this is an especially urgent moment to act. 

“Structural racism is a public health crisis. It is the underlying condition fueling disparities in COVID-19 outcomes,” she wrote. “Our success at fighting the spread of COVID-19 and ensuring public health and safety is predicated on acknowledging and addressing the pre-existing condition of structural racism that enables this pandemic to flourish.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico and support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.
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