Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the St. Paul City Council had approved a statement calling racism a public health crisis.
Several of Minnesota's largest local governments have declared that racism is a public health emergency. But what exactly does that mean, and what impact can those declarations have on discrimination, racism and public health?
Since early July, the Minneapolis City Council and Ramsey and Hennepin county boards have approved similar resolutions. They've joined numerous U.S. cities and counties as part of a national reckoning on race, sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.
Adopting the declarations, local officials say, is a first step to toward officially acknowledging racism, then developing policies to end it. In Minneapolis, council members listed multiple actions, including having a racial advisory committee review the city charter and other policies, reforms to criminal justice and public safety and doing annual reports on the health of residents of color.
City leaders also directed the establishment of a long-term funding source for youth programs and financial support for small businesses and housing to "reverse and repair the harm experienced" by residents of color.
"Systemic racism is among the greatest long-term threats our city and nation are facing, and the last two months have made that reality painfully clear," Mayor Jacob Frey said in a statement. "For Minneapolis to be a place where everyone can live and thrive, we must recognize this crisis for what it is and approach policymaking with the urgency it deserves."
Disturbing disparities between whites, Blacks and other people of color in Minnesota have been well-documented, including in a 2019 Star Tribune news analysis of U.S. census data. Black people have higher rates of poverty, unemployment and health problems, as well as lower educational achievement and homeownership. State data show that Black people and other people of color are at higher risk of severe consequences of COVID-19.
People of color are also significantly more likely to be involved in use-of-force incidents involving law enforcement and to experience prejudice in their professional and personal lives, which in turn leads to stress — a major factor in conditions such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Some of the nation's leading medical organizations have also released statements highlighting racism as a public health threat.
Acknowledging the damage done by racism is a critical step in improving the lives of all Americans. Yet the declarations will be nothing more than symbolic without effective action.
The challenge ahead for state and local leaders is to find new solutions while also protecting the resources needed to sustain current programs as budgets are stretched in the contracting coronavirus economy.