Racism is a public health crisis,” Joe Flood

 September 16, 2020; Tampa Bay Times and WTSP (Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida)

In the wake of the nation’s twin pandemics of racism and COVID-19, a growing number of communities have declared racism to be a public health crisis. The movement to recognize racism as a public health menace that kills began to gain momentum before COVID-19, with Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, declaring embedded racism “a public health crisis affecting our entire city” at the end of 2019.

Since the murder of George Floyd, a number of other communities have joined Pittsburgh. Jurisdictions advancing resolutions of this sort just this month include the wine industry community of Napa, California; the city of Bellingham, Washington, two hours north of Seattle; and Detroit, Michigan.

But Hillsborough County, Florida—better known for its faux pirates than its progressive politics—caught our attention. In 2000, a year in which famously official returns found George Bush to have received 537 more votes statewide than Al Gore, Bush carried the county comfortably by a margin of 11,000 votes.

Although politics have shifted since, and Hillsborough County voters supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a sizable margin, the community is hardly a liberal bastion. Indeed, the county has been widely viewed as reflecting national norms. A study by American Cities Business Journals in 2004 found the county to be the third-most representative county (closest to the median) of 3,141 counties, with an “uncanny resemblance to the nation in several respects,” including household income, age profile, and education levels.

Today, the seven-member Hillsborough County Commission has just one Black member. That person, Chairman Les Miller Jr., used the occasion of the public health resolution to talk “for eight minutes about the racism he faced personally in Tampa, including growing up in a food desert that likely contributed to long-term medical concerns,” reports C.T. Bowen of the Tampa Bay Times.

In his remarks, Miller called attention to the persistence of racism in the Tampa Bay region, drawing on this personal experience:

I was racially profiled as late as a year and a half ago. I’m a county commissioner, chair of the county commission; on the back of my car there’s a license plate that says retired State Senate. And the Hillsborough County Sheriff one night pulled my wife and I over. We were coming from a function. [The officer] got out [of] the car, shining his light into my car, all through the back seats and wanted to know where I was coming from or where I was going that time of night.

Miller voted for the resolution, but not before noting his skepticism that he was concerned that passing the resolution might be an exercise in symbolism, rather than meaningful policy change. “This should not be about politics,” Miller warned.

The seven-member commission approved the resolution on a 5–0 vote (two commissioners were absent for the session).

After three pages of “Whereas” clauses, the resolution identifies a set of 10 action steps, among which are the following:

  • Promote equity through all policies and assert racism is a public health crisis.
  • Ensure antiracism principles are applied across county leadership, staffing, and contracting.
  • Enhance educational efforts aimed at understanding, addressing and dismantling racism and how it affects the delivery of human and social services, economic development, and public safety.
  • Commit to advocating similar policies in other counties through advocacy with the National Association of Counties.
  • Support community efforts to address issues of racism and engage actively and authentically with communities of color wherever they live.
  • Encourage racial equity training both within the county government and among all community partners, grantees, vendors, and contractors.

The resolution was patterned on a similar resolution that had been adopted by Dallas County, Texas in June. Similar resolutions have also passed in other counties, including DeKalb County, Cobb County, and Gwinnett County—all in the Metro Atlanta region; Mecklenburg County (county seat: Charlotte) in North Carolina; and Montgomery County in Maryland (bordering Washington, DC).—Steve Dubb