Is Racism Causing a Public Health Crisis in Virginia? The Assembly Will Decide.

By Arianna Coghill

January 29, 2021

Virginia’s General Assembly has to address the Commonwealth’s past and present in the form of a vote.

RICHMOND- Virginia is now one step closer to becoming the first Southern state to acknowledge racism as a public health crisis.

On Jan. 26, the Virginia House passed HJ 537 by a vote of 55 to 37. The bill, filed by Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) requires Virginia to acknowledge racism damages health in a variety of ways and take steps to address it.

It’s a common mistake to think of racism only as hooded, white men setting crosses on fire or calling someone racial slur. But the reality is a lot deeper than that.

Racism is baked into the very foundation of the United States, especially in Virginia. And Black and brown communities are still suffering at the hands of these unfair institutions to this day. The COVID-19 pandemic just made the problem worse.

To Aird, it’s important that Virginia acknowledges these issues on a legislative level. She sees that as the first step to actually finding a solution to the problem.

“Having it on paper is important to affirm its existence,” said Aird. “The first step in solving a problem is admitting that there’s a problem. So, as a commonwealth, formally acknowledging racism is a public health crisis not only acknowledges it exists, but allows us to lay down some baseline recommendations on how we can address the problem here in the Commonwealth. “

How Can Racism Affect Someone’s Health?

Considering Virginia being the home to the former capitol of the Confederacy, it should come as no shock that the state has a long history of discrimination against minorities, particularly Black people. But that discrimination isn’t a relic of the past. While there has been progress, this racism is still prevalent in our society.

In fact, a 2016 University of Virginia study revealed that several doctors routinely leave Black people untreated for a variety of different disorders, based mainly on racial biases. UVA professors asked hundreds of professionals and medical students whether or not they believed several misconceptions about Black people.

Myths that date back to the 1800s and have no scientific backing, actually still had support. These include alleging that Black people’s skin is tougher or their blood coagulates faster.

Out of 222 participants, over half of them admitted to believing at least one of these falsehoods. And the participants who did believe these myths were more likely to report lower pain levels for their Black patients. This creates a huge issue with Black patients dying because doctors didn’t give the treatment they needed. And we see this problem directly reflected in Virginia’s current epidemic of Black mothers dying due untreated pregnancy complications.

“There are a number of physicians and processes that have implicit bias in them that directly lead to adverse impacts, particularly for Black and brown people,” said Aird. “We’ve seen the data be loud and clear be an indicator to that bias being the cause for the disparate rate of maternal mortality for example. “

Black Mothers Die Because of This

In the US, there’s a maternal mortality crisis across the board. Three months ago, the The Virginia Maternal Mortality Review Team (VMMRT) reported that despite the rest of the world seeing a 40% decline in their maternal mortality rates, the US saw a 26% increase. And of the people who died, over half of them were Black. In Virginia, Black people are two to three times more likely than white people to die in childbirth.

Unfortunately, these racial biases are probably to blame. Because of this issue, many Black mothers are reaching out to doulas, who are typically non-medical guides who provide support for mothers before, during and after a pregnancy.

“It’s all about trust. So many women have described talking to physicians who don’t believe them when they describe pain and don’t take the feedback that they’re offering them when it comes to diagnoses and treatment,” said Aird.

Aird’s hopes that this bill will help address this crisis happening in Virginia. But this isn’t the only piece of legislation that the lawmaker has worked on addressing maternal mortality. In 2019 and 2020, Aird and her team worked on several bills on the issue, including one that gave $250,000 towards a neo perinatal collaborative that would help collect more data on maternal mortality.

However, Aird made huge strides in 2020, after she passed legislation that would give expectant mothers on Medicaid the option of paying their doulas through insurance. But this racism doesn’t end with healthcare. It bleeds into almost every facet of modern life.

READ MORE: How Do We Fight Black Maternal Mortality in Virginia?

It’s More Than Healthcare

While access to good healthcare plays huge role in keeping people healthy, it’s not the only thing. There are several different things that can affect your health, including your access to food, water, shelter and stable employment. Usually, these things are called “social determinants” and racism has been affecting minorities’ access to them for countless decades.

Racist policies like “redlining” discriminated against primarily Black neighborhoods in the 1930s. In 1937, the Home Owners Loan Corporation created residential security maps that would determine which neighborhoods were worth investing in. Usually, the predominantly Black neighborhoods were given low ratings, meaning that they wouldn’t be invested in. Eventually, the areas would fall into economic decline.

Even to this day, places like Jackson Ward, a Richmond neighborhood that is 95% Black, are still struggling to wash off the stain left behind from this.

“So when we look at our systems and institutions such as our transportation systems, our hospitals, our school systems, our environmental qualities, all these things that directly contribute to our well being,” said Aird. “Those systems were built on a foundation of inequality and biases.”

When people talk about racism, they’re not just talking about white nationalist extremists. They’re talking about the racism that’s still embedded deep in this country. The part that makes this problem all the more tragic is that all these problems pre-date COVID. So when the pandemic hit, all these problems just got worse.

READ MORE: The Glory Days of Jackson Ward: A Look Back at ‘The Harlem of the South’

How COVID-19 Made Everything Worse

For almost a year now, the US has been stuck in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. And ever since it began, COVID has only made these systemic problems even worse. The disease has ravaged Black, indigenous and Latinx communities far more than their white counterparts in Virginia. And the data implies that oppression may be the reason why.

A lot of the impoverished counties in Virginia have high minority populations. And when you’re experiencing poverty, several aspects of your quality of life can take a hit. For example, there are several areas in Virginia that don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, better known as food deserts.

According to the Journal of the American Heart Association, people who live in “food deserts” are more likely to have cardiovascular problems. And according to the United States Department of Agriculture, “the percent of the population that is non-Hispanic Black is over twice as large in urban food deserts than in other urban areas” .

“If you already have underlying health challenges like diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, you are that much more susceptible to contracting the COVID virus and furthermore recovering from it.,” said Aird. “So we see Black and brown people with these underlying health conditions dying at increased rates.”

Right now, despite only making up 9.8% of the population, Latinx people make up 18.1% of the state’s COVID-19 cases. And Virginia’s indigenous makes up .2% of COVID cases but they only make up .1% of the population.

These problems do not exist in a vacuum. One problem bleeds into another, until it snowballs out of control. That’s why Del. Aird is fighting to have Virginia recognize this problem before more people lost their lives to this problem.

READ MORE: Virginia Opens the Door to ‘Nontraditional Markets’ with Food Access Fund

A Faulty Criminal Justice System is a Health Issue

It may not be an association that most people think about but the criminal justice system and the Black community’s health go hand in hand. Ever since its inception, Black people have been disproportionately targeted by police and punished harder by the criminal justice system. A 2020 study showed that Black people are 3.23 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than white people. Also, according to the ACLU, sentences for Black men are 20% longer than whites for similar crimes.

And, especially now, getting locked up can definitely affect your health. There are currently 14,226 reported outbreaks of COVID-19 inside of correctional facilities in Virginia.

In May 2020, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. His death sparked months of protests in the city of Richmond, continuing until the end of the year. In fact, it was this civil unrest during the summer of 2020 that was at the forefront of Aird’s mind when creating the bill.

“I first introduced this during the special session,” said Aird. “It was right on the heels of the social unrest of 2020 which was the result of racism leading to death from people engaging in our criminal justice system. So I would be disingenuous if I did not say that those particular events definitely were the culmination of what we’ve already known for so long. What are we going to do is begin to rectify these events that continue to happen over and over.”

These internal biases in law enforcement are killing Black people. And Aird hopes to tackle this issue, especially how it relates to Black men, with this bill.

READ MORE: Richmond’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Refuses to Reopen Marcus-David Peters Investigation

What Will the Bill Do?

Besides officially declaring racism a public health emergency, it will also introduce the following recommendations for the state:

  • expand VDH’s Office of Health Equity to be the primary watchdog for ensuring policies addressing racism are implemented;
  • make the Commission to Examine Racial Ineuity in Virginia Law permanent;
  • establish training for all state elected officials, their staff members and state employees on recognizing racism;
  • create a list of definitions and terms on racism and health equity; and
  • promote community engagement across the state on recognizing racism.

Right now, Aird’s is hoping that the bill get’s through the Senate. If the Senate passes the bill, then all it needs is a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam. And while that’s all well and good, Aird’s wants to acknowledge that the creation and potential passing of this bill is only the very first step in addressing the problem of racism in this state.

“And I want to stress that this is a baseline,” she said. “Those recommendations are absolutely the bare minimum of what needs to happen when actually building a set of solutions to the problem we know exist in all the areas the institutions where racism runs rampant.”

What Happens Next?

Right now, Aird’s is hoping that the bill get’s through the Senate. If the Senate passes the bill, then all it needs is a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam.

However, this bill isn’t the only thing Aird has worked on in terms of racial disparities in healthcare. Currently, lawmakers are retooling the budget to make sure that Medicaid can pay community based doulas, just like medical professionals. This should open the door for more people to have access to doulas during their pregnancies.

“It will be a real adjustment for them to get paid through the government which requires a level of documentation and preparation,” said Aird. “So, to make sure that they are as successful as possible, we want to make sure that we’re thinking through that process.”

Right now, the General Assembly is more than halfway done with their session. This session, unlike last year’s, will be shorter than most. If you’d like to tune into their session, you can find their livestream on their website. If you’d also like to reach out to your district’s delegate, you can find their contact information on their website.

Arianna Coghill is a content producer with the Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

CATEGORIES: Uncategorized


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