Michigan State Senators Erika Geiss (L) and Marshall Bullock
Michigan State Senators Erika Geiss (L) and Marshall Bullock

If passed, the resolution would be the first step of many to address racism in Michigan.

LANSING, MI — Michiganders have seen unprecedented threats to public health and safety this year. From historic floods in Midland to a global pandemic, it seems like public crises are everywhere you turn.

With recent civil unrest in the country after the murders of unarmed Black men by police, Michigan lawmakers want to examine racism as a whole within the state, declare it a problem and work toward solutions.

State senators Marshall Bullock and Erika Geiss formally requested that Michigan “commit to working collaboratively with the Governor and every sector of society to develop an ongoing strategy to address, fund, and support solutions that strategically reduce the long-term impact that racism has on the quality of life and health for citizens of color.”

It can be difficult to pin down what a declaration of a a “public health crisis” means in the United States. And that’s not surprising, according to Dr. Jeffery Schultz, professor of public health education and director of the Office of Health Promotion at Eastern Michigan University. 

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“It will depend on what source you go to,” Dr. Schultz said of ambiguous definitions of public health crises, emergencies and problems. “I tell my students that any time we see an increase in morbidity and mortality, death and disease, we consider it a public health problem.”

Dr. Schultz says that the American concept of health largely focuses on physical health, though recently mental and emotional well being have been getting more attention.

“If we see things happening that inhibit people’s ability to live a quality life, that’s a public health problem too,” he told The ‘Gander.

Resolutions are non-binding and do not have a direct impact on existing laws, but can be used by government bodies as a statement of priorities or to declare intentions, usually without funding commitments from the legislature.

State Senator Geiss said several recent events led to her drafting the resolution.

“In the wake of recent national events of the extrajudicial murders of Black men and women, the racial disparities that the covid-19 pandemic has laid bare for all to witness,” she told The ‘Gander. “And throughout having to address the issue of a colleague choosing to wear a face mask with a Confederate rebel flag pattern in the chamber. The lack of response to address the issues myself and other members have raised about why it was inappropriate are among the reasons that now is the appropriate time to declare racism a public health crisis. “

“It’s not enough to just come up with a statement that says ‘we know, we acknowledge,’” Dr. Dillaway said. “It’s about making sure we understand the data and then [are] acting on that data.”

She says numbers can be intimidating and overwhelming, but they are the heart of the information needed to understand Michigan’s racism problems. The Department of Justice reported a total 431 hate crimes committed in Michigan in 2018. Over half of the reported hate crimes were based on race.

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“I think that in any public health program you should already be talking about racism and racial discrimination. One of the first things you learn in public health is that biology doesn’t determine health. It’s all the other social factors.”

Senators Geiss and Bullock are wading through political mire to bring the resolution to a vote, but the process is currently being stalled by other lawmakers who are not interested in bringing the resolution to a vote yet.

“We chose the action of bringing up the issue of systemic racism in the legislature because the legislature is the space where policies and laws that shape systemic institutionalized racism are made,” Geiss said. “As legislators, we have the voices to speak about it and the power to introduce laws that could improve each aspect of life that systemic institutionalized racism touches—employment, healthcare, education, housing, criminal justice, and even policing/public safety.  We are in a position to listen to the folks marching and protesting in the streets for change, hear what they are saying, and shape it into not just awareness, but action at the policy level.

If successfully passed, the resolution would officially acknowledge racism as a problem in Michigan. When problems are declared, solutions can be found. Dr. Heather Dillaway says that public universities should all be studying the problem and seeking solutions.

Bullock explained to his colleagues on the Senate floor that conditions that disproportionately affect Black Michiganders —  diabetes, high blood pressure, a lack of access to reliable health care and often crowded living situations — can be linked to social and economic factors like discriminatory housing and education policies throughout history that continue today.

“The only pre-existing condition that truly impacts Black people and their health is racism,” he said on the floor.

The resolution was introduced as protests proliferate across the country following the police-involved death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. The officer who held his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, Derek Chauvin, was arrested within days of the incident, yet the mass demonstrations  continue

Michigan is not the first state to introduce a resolution likening racism to a disease. Ohio’s largest county introduced a resolution last month, and several U.S. cities are doing the same.

Official, state-sponsored exploration of Michigan’s racial disparities started with the state’s leadership. Governor Gretchen Whitmer created a task force to track and understand disparities in Michigan’s coronavirus deaths, which disproportionately affected the Black community. 

What Next?

If the resolution passes, it gives the state an opportunity to collect data on racism and its effects on the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of Black Michiganders.

“It’s about time,” Shultz said. “It’s one thing to declare a problem. It’s another to actually take the steps to deal with it.”

He says the first step toward fixing the problem is honesty.

“We all have biases. And just because you have a bias doesn’t mean that you are an overt, horrible racist. But we have to recognize that global history is filled with an enormous amount of systemic racism.

The constructs and definitions of racism are also being reexamined. Merriam-Webster is revisiting its definition of racism which is currently defined as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

A recent college graduate has challenged that definition to include “a political or social system founded on racism” in its expanded definition. And Michigan lawmakers are challenging the state to declare racism a public health crisis

It seems state senators are taking their cues both from the times and from the top. Geiss says lawmakers must do this work.

“We cannot be silent in our legislative chambers.”

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