In what’s being touted as an important first step in addressing decades of race-based inequality, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele signed a resolution Monday declaring racism a public health crisis.
“Everybody has been reading and hearing about the same set of statistics in Milwaukee for decades,” Abele said at yesterday’s signing, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He went on to cite the county’s racial disparities in employment, education, incarceration, income and access to capital.
The resolution isn’t just about a public commitment to taking action, said Abele, but is designed to foreground race equity in all areas of county decisions. On top of assessing internal policies and procedures to make sure racial equity is a “core element of the country,” the resolution also vows to explicitly advocate for policies that improve the health of communities of color and offer trainings that “expand employees” understanding of how racism affects people.”
“It is Milwaukee County’s responsibility to address racism, including seeking solutions to reshape the discourse, actively engaging all citizens in racial justice work,” Abele said. “Local government needs to take a leadership role and we intend to do so.”
One of the explicit goals of the resolution is to encourage other local, state and national entities to recognize racism as a public health crisis.
Various studies have confirmed the myriad ways race can impact health. There are issues like access to health care and how black patients are treated by health care providers. But there is also data showing that even “routine” day-to-day discrimination—receiving poor service at a restaurant or shop, for example, managing a relationship with a biased boss or dealing with regular microaggressions at work—can, over time, lead to more rapid development in heart disease. Pregnant women who report experiencing high levels of discrimination are also more likely to give birth to babies who are lower in birth weight—which could be a major health risk for the child.
Some of Milwaukee’s statistics are certainly dire. County Board Vice Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson, who joined Abele at the signing on Monday, referenced the zip code she grew up in—53206—as the most incarcerated zip code in the country, Fox 6 News reports. And Milwaukee County Office on African American Affairs Director Nicole Brookshire flagged issues with high death and infant mortality rates, housing segregation, and lack of prenatal care as ongoing concerns for the county.
But rather than a sign of all that’s gone wrong in Milwaukee County, the acknowledgment of racism as a public health crisis could be more indicative of the county doing something right.
The best evidence of that prior to yesterday’s resolution may be the Office of African American Affairs itself, founded in 2016. Through the office, all Milwaukee County leaders have been trained on racial equity, reports the Milwaukee Independent, with another 4,000 employees expected to be trained in 2019. The County is also “in the process of incorporating a racial equity lens into all its budget decisions,” the paper writes.
“It’s imperative that we do the work to heal Milwaukee’s racial wounds. We’ll be on the right side of history as we re-write the text for what it means to grow up as a Milwaukeean,” Nicholson said at yesterday’s signing. “We cannot rest until every citizen is treated with dignity and respect and this resolution is a step in that direction.”