Colorado is planning to take a big step toward tackling systemic racism in healthcare.
The state will declare racism as a public health crisis, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told the Denver Post this week.
Hunsaker Ryan said the agency’s immediate goals are to partner with local community organizations to provide services to people of color, increasing the diversity of her department’s workforce (which is nearly four-fifths white), and hiring an equity and inclusion officer for the department.
The state’s action comes after a sustained push by workers at the department to make the designation; previously, an open letter only went so far as to call racism a “persistent and critical health issue.” One worker who spoke with the Post described themselves as “really appalled by the fact that CDPHE remains silent about systemic racism.”
“I like it when my employees push me on this issue to go faster and to use language they think is more descriptive,” Hunsaker Ryan told the Post.
In declaring racism as a public health crisis, Colorado joins at least 80 city and county governments that have passed ordinances or declarations designating racism as a public health crisis, according to the American Public Health Association.
Cities and counties that have passed such declarations include Denver, Los Angeles, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Cook County, Illinois. Additionally, the city of Asheville, North Carolina, recently passed an ordinance apologizing for slavery and committing to reparations in the form of investment in traditionally underserved Black communities.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said “racism is a public health crisis” during a press conference in June, but it doesn’t appear Evers has issued any official executive orders or proclamations. (We’ve reached out to Evers’ office for clarification.)
It’s unclear what Colorado’s official proclamation will look like, but ordinances and resolutions passed have generally been short on details, with many local governments mostly promising to further study how best to tackle racism as a matter of public health. Denver’s resolution, for example, “acknowledge[s] that the effects of intergenerational racism are a public health crisis in Denver and the United States, and advocate[s] for racial justice as a core element of Denver’s policies, programs, and procedures.”
At the time of its passage, Denver city councilor Jamie Torres told Denver’s ABC affiliate that even though the proclamation has no legal standing, she hoped it was a start. "We can talk about police brutality, we can talk about unjust systems, but if we don’t acknowledge that racism still sits at its core, then we’re missing the point," Torres said.
The overwhelming majority of local governments to proclaim that racism is a public health crisis have come in the past two months, as protests against racism motivated by the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis have intensified. In Colorado, the cities of Denver and Aurora — where 23-year-old Black massage student Elijah McClain was placed in a chokehold by police officers and later died last year — have both seen sustained protests this summer.
Workers at the health department also told the Denver Post they were frustrated at the lack of attention given to McClain’s death by state health leaders.
“That is a crisis,” one worker told the Post. “It’s been a crisis for a lot longer than the awakening that seemingly happened for white-bodied people in the last month with Floyd. This has been the status quo.”
Cover: Britanny Lugo wipes away a tear while watching people shut down I-225 to protest the death of Elijah McClain on July 25, 2020 in Aurora, Colorado. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)