The Vermont Senate on Thursday adopted J.R.H.6, a joint resolution originating in the House that declares racism is a public health emergency.
By concurring with the House, which passed the measure earlier this month, the Vermont General Assembly declares it is committed to “the sustained and deep work of eradicating systemic racism” throughout the State, creating “more just and equitable systems,” and “eliminating race-based health disparities.”
On Tuesday morning, during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, lawmakers and witnesses testified that racism permeates Vermont’s medical systems, and that this conclusion should be considered factual even before data is gathered on the topic.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said racism is currently embedded in Vermont’s medical systems.
“These are the less overt forms of racism than the individual would be,” he said. “They are embedded within the laws of a society or an organization, or the policies like redlining — these are things that lead to discrimination in all aspects of an individual’s life which, I will tell you, mean the social determinants of health and public health lingo. And they historically and currently put people of color at a disadvantage from the get-go.”
According to the text of the resolution, in 2018, 23.8 percent of Black Vermonters were living in poverty while 10.7 percent of White Vermonters lived in poverty. In addition, 57 percent of
Black Vermonters earned less than 80 percent of Vermont’s median income while 43 percent of White Vermonters earned less than 80 percent of Vermont’s median income. The resolution does not offer any evidence that racism is the cause of the inequities.
Surprisingly, during Tuesday’s committee meeting, witnesses admitted racism must be accepted as the cause of disparities without proof.
“We cannot wait for the data to be collected first before we declare racism a public health crisis,” Bor Yang, executive director for the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said. “That is putting something before you declare it, and that is what prompts the collection of data and the reporting of data.”
Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, the state’s first transgender state representative, said it’s important for the medical community to be at the forefront of confronting racism.
“The largest convincing factor here was actually Levine’s testimony and really realizing that the experts, when it comes to public health within our state, have already taken this action. … And so what we saw is when they made this declaration they also made a health equity team that directly collaborated with community organizations and communities of color to understand where the barriers are.”
Mark Hughes, executive director of Justice For All Vermont, went over a list of action items to dismantle systemic racism. He called this plan “ACT” — an acronym for “acknowledge, create, and transform.”
“We also had a resolution declaring systemic racism in other policy initiatives. [There is] the reparations bill which returned this session, there is business empowerment, there is land and homeownership policy that we put forward, cultural empowerment,” he said. “You’ve seen the health wellness … this is a set of policies that was specifically framed to address the dismantling of systemic racism. The one that’s in front of you, J.R.H. 6, is just framing this.”
Joanne Crawford, a member of the Abenaki Nation, said that Native Americans must be a part of this bill.
“The attempted erasure of our community has been constant over 100 years and still is happening, and when we are left out of resolutions like this I think it is very harmful,” she said.
In the House, Rep. Carl Rosenquist, R-Georgia, was among the few members who voted against J.R.H.6. Rosenquist serves on the House Committee on Human Services.
“I worked hard in our committee to expand the scope of this resolution to include a wider range of life circumstances that lead to many negative life outcomes in our society,” he said. “Some of these include racial, economic, ethnic, cultural, and sexual disparities. Many of these disparities can lead to negative health and life outcomes.
“I believe the current resolution leaves out or miss-identifies many of the root causes of these inequities,” he said.