During this time of the pandemic, public health officials mobilized on the most pressing public health emergency in America: Racism.
What — were you thinking of Coronavirus? Or maybe the riots?
No, the urgent health emergency everyone needs to deal with is Racism.
On May 19, 2020, Franklin County Ohio (home of Dayton, the state’s third-largest city) declared Racism a public health emergency.
Boston followed suit on June 12, and a number of other states, counties, and city governments have announced plans to do the same.
San Bernardino, CA
the State of Maine
Montgomery County, MD
the State of Michigan
the State of Missouri
the State of New Mexico
the State of New York
Allegheny County, PA
the State of Texas
If you missed this nationwide movement towards policies and laws designed to address institutional racism, that’s not your fault. A Google Trends search reveals the topic received almost no attention before May 13, 2020. That’s when a sudden spike in interest occurred, which can easily be explained by public concerns about institutional Racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
The trouble with this explanation is George Floyd died May 25, 2020, more than a week after the spike started.
Americans started thinking about this topic just before the tragedy occurred, and the death of George Floyd suddenly made it one of the things they thought about the most.
Without knowing the term, someone working in Public Relations or Digital Advertising might look at this graph and think they are seeing the results of advance work. Before an event, you take steps to generate interest like buy ads, send emails, buy spots on local radio, anything to capture attention and generate interest. You might pay someone to search for terms and click specific links to ensure the top pages in search engines are the ones you want people to see.
Except no one should have known George Floyd was about to die. No one should have been promoting his death or prepping search engines for the conversation that was to happen after his departure. Other professionals, who look at information as a weapon, might see this chart as an indicator of something very different than organic public interest.
Why did ‘Racism is a Public Health Emergency’ suddenly become the hottest topic on Google Search before the public mass reaction to the death of George Floyd? What does this have to do with Defunding Police Departments, and why are these conversations happening right now?
To find answers, we need to understand very clearly what’s meant by Racism and Public Health.
What Do Racism and Public Health Mean?
In the United States, “public health” brings to mind access to healthcare services. The phrase brings up visions of doctors, nurses, ambulances and hospitals; the questions it raises are about capacity, whether your insurance is commonly accepted, where you can get prescriptions, and the like.
In the context of Racism as a Public Health Crisis, the term “public health” means something very different. It means the power to make sweeping changes to public policy and fund groups outside of government.
In Boston, when Mayor Marty Walsh announced Racism would be treated as a public health crisis, he declared $3 million in police funding would be reallocated to a community-based task force lead by the Boston Public Health Commission, along with an additional $12 million from FY 2021’s budget towards community groups focused on youth, homelessness, and people struggling with the effects of inequality.
Reading through the declaration gives us a better sense of what Boston City Government means by using the term. The document can be understood in three parts.
First, it asserts racism is a threat to public health and explains how it works through jobs, education, and housing policy.
Next, it cites statistics about public health outcomes to make the case that the points made before are true.
Next, it describes a strategy for combating racism that ties the term to poverty, violence, and “other systems of oppression.”
The last part is key. This document asserts systemic racism is a form of violence currently being carried about against marginalized groups by government itself. It simultaneously indicts existing government while issuing a directive to change anything identified as being “oppressive.” Public Health officials have now become city auditors with a mandate to investigate anything and everything under the City’s purview.
Reading any of the news announcements describing the declaration, no one would have a clue the magnitude of the power the Mayor invested in public health officials. The most widely cited story is available here:
This was issued on May 19, 2020, six days before the death of George Floyd. The declaration follows the same structure as Boston’s, in that it asserts racism is a threat to public health, provides statistics to back up this assertion, and describes a strategy for attacking the problem. Beyond seeking to commit the county to better public health outcomes, this declaration calls on the county to advocate locally and nationally to dismantle racism, as well as solidify alliances and partnerships with organizations that recognize racism as a public health crisis.
Why is a county government providing itself a national mandate over public health?
What are the alliances and partnerships it seeks to solidify? And why was this issued immediately before the death of George Floyd?
Boston and Dayton (the largest city in Franklin County) are both members of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE.) Here’s a map from their website indicating who are the members.
So are Los Angeles, CA (home to Riverside and San Bernardino;) the State of Michigan; Montgomery County, MD; the State of Michigan; Minneapolis, MN; Albuquerque, NM; New York City; Charlotte, NC; Lancaster, PA (in Lancaster County;) several Cities in TX; Seattle, WA; and Milwaukee, WI.
Most of the governments that announced Racism is a Public Health Emergency are members, and are also announcing efforts aimed at Defunding the Police.
Just because a specific jurisdiction is not a member does not mean they do not work with GARE. The organization offers downloadable tools and resources available to anyone that describe how to implement race and equity policies.
GARE receives most of its funding from the Open Society Foundation (George Soros) and the Tides Center (Drummond Pike,) along with grants from various government agencies.
To summarize their platform, GARE contends systemic racism thoroughly pervades American society and its institutions to oppress marginalized people. To demonstrate this point, they use aggregated data about education, income and health, adjusted for race. The solutions described in their website range from simple tax credits for transportation to radical changes to school curriculums centered on teaching students that white people have kept marginalized communities enslaved since the founding of the nation.
The question is not whether GARE partner organizations chose to coordinate their Declarations of Racism as a Public Health Crisis – they did.
Beyond having a common membership, one indicator is the structural similarities of the Declarations themselves. Governments regularly share templates for legislation and announcements on complex subjects and coordinate the implementation of policy to achieve a common framework for governance. This happens every day at the state and local level.
The question is why now, at this moment, did these governments choose to make these announcements? Why are they giving broad authority to appointed councils to review all government policies with the goal of implementing radical change? And what does it have to do with the spike in public interest in the topic of “Racism as a Health Crisis” prior to the death of George Floyd?
The Atlantic ran a piece the other day titled “There’s No Going Back to ‘Normal’.” It speaks of partisan anti-lockdown protests as an expression of wanting society to return to the way it was, and how our former life was “our former life was actually abnormal—its frenetic pace, its inequalities, and its injustices.”
There will be no going back to normal, the public is slowly being conditioned to accept that life will be different as we emerge from the virus.
Governments will be examining the services they deliver to ensure equity in distribution. Especially with an eye to schools, residential zoning laws, education policy, healthcare, policing, fire departments, and other agencies that affect opportunity and healthcare outcomes.
GARE members pursue an aggressively anti-racist agenda and have been putting their handbook in action throughout this crisis.
Throughout the quarantine, various policies have been selectively enforced.
In New York City, funerals and visits to the park were banned while mobs, riots, looting, toppling statues and provocative attacks on police were all allowed.
There’s a reason for this. Funerals come from a point of privilege, not everyone can afford them especially in a place with wealth inequality like New York City. “Protests,” on the other hand, represent the cries of the oppressed. An anti-racist mayor could not endorse the former and can only accept the latter.
This is the new normal everyone is being told to accept, and, in New York, people are already living it. This is the new public health, expect the end of the lockdown to bring more changes.
Ending the Lockdown
This change was ushered in as the world watched a video of a man dying and finding information through a search term that became oddly popular a week before.
Sometimes, for policy to change, it takes a break in your schedule. The world should not be racist, people should not experience negative health outcomes as a result of differences in how resources are allocated. And no one should expect to live in a society that accepts such inequalities as the default.
At the same time, the way things change matters. The public trust was breached watching the video of George Floyd dying, trust in law enforcement was greatly diminished. Symbols of our culture were destroyed by violent mobs with accusations that America is fundamentally racist at its core. For that to have worth, for the sacrifices everyone has made throughout the pandemic to possess any virtue – there can be no question about this event being manufactured to change public opinion and destroy trust in our institutions.
A careful review of metrics around social media reveals that one of the most highly referenced articles on this topic is from the Washington State Nurses Association. Titled “Racism is a public health emergency,” it was published on June 2, 2020 and proceeded by other articles focused on racism.
Washington State was one of the first places in the US impacted by COVID-19. To date, the number of new cases has been like a mountain range, with many peaks and valleys. With 34.3 cases 10,000 people, it’s certainly not the hardest hit place in the nation. But the rate of new cases does continue to go up and down, with three counties that never seem to hit those three-day averages the others do.
It does make you wonder what’s being conveyed.
Included below is a selection of articles related to Racism as a Public Health Crisis, along with dates of publication.