King County Officially Declares Racism a Public Health Crisis

by Emerald Staff

Today, King County and Public Health-Seattle & King County (PHSKC) officially declared that racism is a public health crisis. 

In a statement, King County Executive Dow Constantine committed the County and its public health authority to implementing a racially equitable response to racism, centering on community.

“[We] are committed to working in stronger and better resourced partnerships with community organizations and leaders to disrupt and dismantle racism and protect the health and well-being of Black, Indigenous People and People of Color,” Constantine said in the statement. 

He went on to acknowledge the County’s past and present complicity “in maintaining and perpetuating structural racism,” and said that “as an institution we must be a vital player in dismantling oppressive systems that are grounded in White supremacy.”

The County is pledging to provide community leaders and organizations with resources to develop solutions. 

“We will share power and resources and work on community-defined problems using community-driven solutions … We make these commitments because we know that together we can stop both disease and racism and lay the foundation for a better, stronger community,” Constantine’s statement read. 

It also committed the county to convening its other jurisdictions and agencies across sectors to create mechanisms of shared accountability. The County will use quantitative data, including data about racial inequities, along with voices and know-how from community leaders and residents to ensure that accountability, according to the statement. 

“White privilege and anti-Blackness cannot be fully addressed until the same systems that have ‘worked just fine’ for White people, while acting as the foot of oppression for indigenous, Black, and Brown communities, are dismantled. In its place, we need new systems coming from the communities most affected by racism, oppression, and colonization,” Constantine said. 

To that effort the County says it will adopt a new “Anti-Racism Crisis Response Bill of Rights.” The initiative will include principles such as, “do no harm; co-create with those most vulnerable both in the short- and long-term; provide safe, respectful and culturally responsive care, services and information, delivered in a manner centered in BIPOC communities; and provide access to crisis-related services and resources for all community members and provide redress to community members within established mechanisms when barriers or gaps are identified.”

King County’s declaration follows a similar one by Franklin County, Ohio last month and Milwaukee, WS last year

Far from symbolic, Derrick Wheeler-Smith,  Director of Zero Youth Detention under PHSKC, views the declaration as a necessary step towards more fundamental transformation.

“I think it’s clear that the negative impacts we see in every indicator for the black body are without question ‘the house that racism built.’ Transformation begins with, we have a problem, and it’s racially predictable!” said Smith. “Society keeps being allowed to show up in a way that says ‘we don’t value black lives’ and the only way we can combat that is across sectors, taking a Public Health approach.”

Although the idea of the declaration had been previously discussed, according to Public Health-Seattle & King County, the disproportionate numbers of People of Color helped accelerate the decision. “It’s been an ongoing national tragedy and shame that we have communities of color throughout our country suffering disproportionate adverse health impacts from a wide variety of health conditions,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, local health officer for PHSKC, in an email. 

“COVID-19 brings to light that we’re all interconnected. Equity does the same thing. I think this is something that touches me pretty deeply as someone who came to this country as an immigrant,” said Matías Valenzuela, Equity Director for PHSKC.

With racial understanding largely shifting for the better over the last 20 years, Valenzuela said that more people are open to the county’s equity-first approach it adopted with its Equity and Social Justice Ordinance, in 2016.

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who represents parts of Skyway and most of southeast Seattle, plus Capital Hill and the U-District, welcomed the announcement.

“Nothing poses a bigger and more immediate threat to public health than racism. I say this because racism affects every aspect of our lives,” said Zahilay in a text to the Emerald. “Generations of structural racism have created racial disparities in underlying health conditions, access to healthcare, odds of living in resourced zip codes, and the type of housing people live in … the ways racism impacts individual and community health is quite possibly endless.”

Well-known community organizer, racial justice activist, and educator Julie Chang Schulman was a little less enthusiastic at the announcement, simply saying, “about time” in a text message to the Emerald

King County says that it will issue announcements about its next steps, guided by community partners, in the near future. 

Featured image by Alex Garland.

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