Richmond is now among more than 200 American localities that have declared racism a public health crisis.
The City Council unanimously adopted the declaration on Monday night with few remarks from the legislative body, five months after Virginia lawmakers passed a similar resolution for the state. The city’s resolution is the first adopted by a Virginia locality.
Richmond’s resolution sets out a 10-point plan that includes the implementation of new laws and policies; public outreach efforts; partnerships with community organizations; and anti-racism training for city officials and employees.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the health impacts of Richmond’s history of discriminatory housing policies, concentrated in Black neighborhoods where — to this day — poverty rates are high, life expectancy is lower than average, and access to food and medical care is scarce.
In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a “serious public health threat,” citing the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on racial and ethnic minority groups because of structural inequities. The federal agency pledged to invest more in communities of color and to expand internal diversity training.
Fifteen states — including Mississippi, California and Wisconsin — have declared racism a public health crisis, according to the American Public Health Association. On the group’s website, the group defines racism as a systemic and interpersonal social phenomenon that creates inequities in health care, housing, education and employment, and “saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”
Jackie Lawrence, director of health equity for the combined health district of Richmond and Henrico County, described some of the disparities in health outcomes for Black families in the area as “staggering.”
In Richmond, she said, the infant mortality rate for Black families over the past 15 years has been 12 in every 1,000 cases, more than double the rate for white families. She said Black infants are five times more likely to be born early, which can lead to severe health complications, disability or death.
Lawrence said structural issues such as the lack of a grocery store in majority-Black neighborhoods, including in North Richmond’s Highland Park, make it difficult for families to make healthy dietary choices.
She said these marginalized communities are resilient but that more needs to be done.
“The numbers aren’t lying to us. We also have the lived experience of people verbally telling us — qualitative data — that racism is traumatic,” Lawrence said. “Resolutions like this help us understand this is a collective issue.”
Lawrence said the pandemic has highlighted many of these issues, as disparities in coronavirus cases and deaths have followed similar trend lines.
From June 21 to July 18, Black residents of Richmond accounted for 62% of the city’s COVID-19 cases where race and ethnicity was reported, while making up only 47% of the city’s population. White city residents made up 43% of Richmond’s population but accounted for only 14% of the city’s coronavirus cases in that period.
Public housing units, where up to 95% of residents are Black, and Southwood — an apartment complex in South Richmond where the majority of residents are Latino and immigrant — have seen some of the lowest vaccination rates in the city.
Black Virginians are the state’s least-vaccinated group — and unvaccinated people are accounting for nearly every recent coronavirus case, hospitalization and death.
Federal, state and local government officials have tried to raise more attention around racism, particularly after the national wave of protests last year following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
The resolution passed Monday by the Richmond City Council cites the council’s creation of a task force to establish a police oversight and accountability board as part of the city’s anti-racism efforts.
The Virginia General Assembly’s resolution on racism and public health seeks to apply an equity lens to health policy by requiring diversity and anti-racism training for elected officials and state employees and promoting community engagement about disparities in health care. The resolution was proposed by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg.
The Virginia Senate unanimously approved the resolution, while the House of Delegates adopted it in a split vote along party lines.
In May, the City Council adopted a resolution declaring gun violence a health crisis.
That resolution and Monday’s are both symbolic with no resources attached, but officials are hoping they will be a springboard for action and accountability.
“We need to make sure this is more than just ink on paper,” Councilman Michael Jones, who represents the city’s 9th District, said in an interview. “If you think it’s important, you’ll inspect it.”
As city officials work to flesh out action plans for racism and gun violence, council members will also soon consider a proposal introduced Monday that would declare a climate and ecological emergency in Richmond.