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Issue Brief COVID-19Racism as a Public Health CrisisSocial and Community Context

State and Local Efforts to Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis

June 12, 2020


As the country reels from the death toll and economic fall-out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans must focus on addressing a more persistent and pernicious public health crisis – systemic racism and injustice. Systemic racism causes a higher COVID-19 death rate for people of color and prevents people of color from achieving their highest level of health. The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day is just the latest evidence of the urgent need for anti-racism actions to reverse years of systemic racism that threaten the health and lives of people of color in the United States. The link between systemic racism and poor health outcomes is clear: the racism built into America’s laws, institutions, and systems is designed to provide privileged groups with better access to the conditions needed to be healthy – healthy and stable housing, economic stability, access to affordable healthcare, clean air and water, high quality education, and healthy food – without providing that same access to people of color. And the outcomes are dire – Black people have lower life expectancy, educational attainment, income, and homeownership than White people across the life span.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death Minneapolis City Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins sought an emergency declaration that racism is a public health issue. Other communities that recognize the important role of local government action to combat racism and its toll on public health are also formalizing their commitment to address systemic racism in local resolutions.  Generally, city and county resolutions that declare racism as a public health emergency both highlight the racial health disparities within the community and include a commitment to dismantle the systems that create the public health crisis, such as eliminating laws and policies that contribute to or institutionalize systemic racism (like in housing and education). The language of these resolutions, alone, cannot repair the health deficit American institutions have left for communities of color. However, these resolutions can jump start critical efforts to assess the barriers to health created by current laws.