COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Democratic lawmakers in Ohio have proposed legislation to declare racism a public health issue amid nationwide protest over the death of George Floyd.
The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus introduced the resolution Tuesday as the state grappled with demonstrations and a coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately affected the black community.
If passed, the resolution would be the first of its kind at the state level, according to the lawmakers. But in the wake of the protests, counties in Ohio and elsewhere have made or are considering similar declarations. One has also been proposed in at least one other state.
“What we are witnessing around the country is a community simply begging to be seen and heard,” said Democratic Rep. Stephanie Howse, of Cleveland, and the caucus president. “Racism is real and it is the biggest public health threat citizens of color face.”
The death of Floyd, a black man who died in Minnesota after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes, has galvanized protesters across the country and called attention to issues of systemic racism.
House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, who had singled out Republicans in the state for standing in the way of similar bills in the past, called for her colleagues in the House and Senate to “be on the right side of history” on Tuesday.
Republicans took issue with the criticism.
Sykes’ complaints “conveniently overlooks” all of the bipartisan work that has been accomplished over the last year, Republican Rep. Bill Seitz, of Cincinnati, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
In Massachusetts, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley and other elected officials of color outlined a series of steps Tuesday they say are needed to confront systemic racism in the state, including a public health declaration. The city of Boston proposed a public health resolution in early March.
Hamilton County Commissioner Victoria Parks announced this week that there will be a vote within the month on whether to officially declare racism a public health crisis in the third-most populous county in Ohio.
Hamilton is following the Franklin County Commissioners, who decided last month to join their health department in passing a similar resolution, in which they noted that black Ohioans have lower life expediencies than their white counterparts.
That’s a point that Gov. Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton, director of the state health department, reiterated during a coronavirus briefing Tuesday.
Recent data shows that for virus-related deaths in which race was reported, 17% of victims were black, even though the group makes up only 13% of the state’s population.
Senate GOP President Larry Obhof plans to meet with members of the black caucus next week to discuss the resolution, said spokesman John Fortney.
Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.
Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.