ALEXANDRIA, Va. — When calls for racial justice spilled into the country’s streets last year following the death of George Floyd, it laid bare the ongoing struggle for racial equality in America.
Now, the issue of racism is increasingly getting a new label: public health emergency.
“We have to call a spade a spade, and the only way in which you're going to make a change is first and foremost is to acknowledge the situation,” said Associate Professor Richard Mason, who chairs the counseling department at Hampton University, a Historically Black College and University in Virginia.
The state legislature in Virginia just passed a law declaring racism a public health emergency.
“Poor quality of housing, discrimination, community disruption, those types of things are all embedded in racism and it creates a sense of traumatic experience for young people and, as you get older, we know based on the research, that those things also affect you know your health and overall well-being,” Mason said.
Around the country, about 180 cities and counties have declared racism a public health emergency, along with seven states. However, Virginia is the first state in the South to do so.
In Virginia, remnants of the South’s segregated past are never too far away. The former segregated library built for Black people remains standing in Alexandria; it’s now the African American History Museum there.
The new law tackles five areas:
- Establishes a watchdog on policies addressing racism
- Makes permanent a commission examining racial inequity in state laws
- Specifically defines racism and health inequity
- Promotes community engagement
- Establishes racial bias training for all state elected officials, staff and state employees
“It is a crisis problem that kills,” said Talia Fox, CEO of KUSI Global, a company that bills itself as a “culture transformation organization.”
It conducts the kind of racial bias and cultural sensitivity training Virginia is aiming for.
“This has to be able to come up and say, ‘Listen, no more. We are going to name this what it is. And we are willing to look under the covers to see what's happening here and address it step by step,’” Fox said. “So, I think it's a very bold and courageous move and I think it's important for the health and longevity of our nation and of our society.”
How the new law shakes out in practice remains to be seen, but some are optimistic.
“If we can take the lead, the hope is that others will begin to follow and see the good things that can come out of this,” Mason said.
For now, it’s a hopeful first step.