Video footage of George Floyd, a Black man dying under the knee of a white police officer, has ignited a nationwide conversation about structural racism.
Many who saw the video and then took to the streets to protest understood the byproduct of racial profiling and the over-policing of Black and brown people directly led to Floyd crying “I can’t breathe” several times before being killed.
However, Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., also saw something else: Racist policies that dictate health care, economics and housing had been suffocating Floyd, along with many Black people, long before his death.
“We should be in the streets and we should be concerned when the police kill somebody because it is horrendous and ugly,” he said. “But every 6.25 minutes a person of color dies from the lack of health care.”
Barber made the comments during a one-hour interview last week with States Newsroom editors and reporters. The Nevada Current is an affiliate of the organization.
Racism, Barber said, is a systemic crisis that steals from Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).
“Scratch a racist and you’ll find a thief,” Barber said. “They will steal your health care. They steal your living wages. They steal your unemployment. They steal your sick leave. They steal your clean air and clean water.”
The national outrage following Floyd’s death along with a health pandemic that has disproportionately infected and killed people of color have pushed lawmakers to acknowledge, if not address, the deep roots of systemic racism.
Gov. Steve Sisolak, who in June promised to respond to the outcry in Nevada, signed a proclamation to name racism as a public health crisis. Other states and local governments have issued similar proclamations.
“I think it’s OK for people to do resolutions and to say what the problem is, but America has known what the problem is since its founding,” Barber said when asked about Nevada’s resolution. “The problem is we haven’t addressed the problem.”
After states identify the problem, Barber added the next step is to enact policies to fix each issue.
“Let’s go down the fact sheet and implement public policy that corrects the factual problems,” he said. “That’s how you have to deal with systemic racism. It’s not just about words. It’s not just about saying it’s wrong. It’s not just about singing Kumbaya. If you’re serious about dealing with racism, systemic racism, then you have to develop governmental assistance to address it.”
Local organizers working with communities of color are glad lawmakers brought light to the public health threat of racism, but they too hope it leads to concrete action.
“One of many things that the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the last couple months has brought forth is how racism literally is a public health crisis,” said Laura Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “Not just in policing but in medical care and environmental racism. I think it’s good (lawmakers) brought this up. It’s unfortunate the Legislature decided to hastily bring it up in the final days.”
Racism is pervasive
“Too often people think of racism as sheets with holes cut in them and burned crosses when really it’s more insidious than that and affects people’s ability to even live,” Martin said.
Racism, she added, is more pervasive.
On the last day of the second special legislative session, Senate Concurrent Resolution 1 was introduced that declared systemic racism a public health crisis magnified by the Covid-19 health pandemic.
“What we’re talking about in terms of health disparities has always existed,” state Sen. Pat Spearman said in the hearing. “It’s just that Covid has pulled back the curtain and allowed the rest of the world to see what people like me have experienced my whole life.”
Southern Nevada Health District data of hospitalization rates and deaths due to Covid-19 show Black, Hispanic and Asian American Pacific Island communities are disproportionately affected.
But the resolution, Martin said, is contrasted against Senate Bill 2, which made revisions to Nevada’s “Officer Bill of Rights.”
Reform advocates sharply criticized lawmakers because SB2 didn’t fully repeal a 2019 law that allows for the questioning of officers by superiors to stop under certain circumstances, prohibits an officer’s compelled statement from being used in certain civil cases, and puts a time limit on investigating alleged misconduct.
Reformers were equally angry the legislation was introduced, heard and passed in an expeditious fashion and lacked any input from impacted communities and people of color who fiercely opposed the law to begin with.
“I just think the way they rolled it out wasn’t very thoughtful,” Martin said. “It was something that needed thoughtful consideration. I’m glad they did it now, but I wonder what it would look like if they had a bigger conversation in 2021.”
Another issue Martin noted was the resolution was approved through a voice vote.
“There is no record or who supports it and who doesn’t,” Martin said. “Ironically, that is how institutional racism is able to thrive, by protecting people in their racism instead of having it out there for all to see and critique.”
When he signed the resolution, Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement “we are taking a proactive approach in joining fellow leaders around the country to declare racism as a public health crisis.”
Local organizers are eager to see what lawmakers do next.
Some suggested actionable steps could include increasing data collection on law enforcement stops and employment at state agencies, as well as strengthen economic policies.
“Considering the disparate impact that COVID-19 has had on Black and brown communities we need to strengthen our paid sick days policy,” said Quentin Savwoir, the political director of Make It Work Nevada.
A paid sick leave bill passed in Nevada in 2019 only applied to employers with more than 50 workers.
“Upwards of 200,000 Nevadans still have to make a decision between going to work sick or caring for themselves because they don’t have paid sick days,” he said. “Nevada legislators should remove the exemptions that keep so many people left out and on the margins and increase the number of days from five to ten.”
According to the Poor People’s Campaign, 43 percent of Nevada residents, or 1.2 million people, are poor or considered low income, including 66 percent of Black people, 63 percent of the Latinx community and 37 percent of white people. The fact sheet didn’t specify Asian American Pacific Islander or Indigenous populations.
“Nevada has spent at least $1.7 billion in public subsidies for corporations over the past five years that could have instead gone to our communities,” the campaign noted.
Of the 13,000 people incarcerated in Nevada, 57 percent are people of color. Black people are 4 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts.
At the very least, some say, the next logical step is implementing mechanisms for stronger data collection to show how structural racism works in the state.
“Year after year, PLAN, the ACLU and other groups have told the Legislature that police need to collect data according to the ethnicity and gender they are coming into contact with,” Martin said. “It helps to understand who they are arresting and why.”
Transparency in data collection, she added, should extend to other state agencies.
“I would love to see if the governor could do something so all agencies could identify places where they could step up in terms of institutional racism including in their own hiring practices,” Martin said. “We don’t want people to be tokenized and hire the first person of color they see, but how are they developing a pipeline so that people know these jobs exist … If my state is majority people of color, who is running this state and how did they get those jobs? How are they recruiting for those jobs?”
The state has previously looked at some health disparities for people of color. In the 2019 session lawmakers commissioned a study on maternal mortality rates, which disproportionately affects Black women across the country.
But data needs to be followed up with policy.
“When we surveyed Black women in Nevada, more than a third reported feeling like their health care provider doesn’t listen to them or take their concerns seriously,” Savwoir said. “This shows up as 42 Black women dying during childbirth for every 100,000 births. No child should have to grow up without their mother. To curb this disparity, we need our legislators to expand Medicaid coverage to include doula services and additional maternal health resources that are often out of reach for Black women.”
In the statement issued by his office when Sisolak signed the resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, he mentioned working with the Nevada Office of Minority Health and Equity to address racism.
That state agency, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, was created in 2005 but went dormant in 2015 following budget cuts. Tina Dortch, program manager for the Office of Minority Health and Equity, said funding allocated in 2017 brought the agency back to life and added the word equity.
“By adding the word equity, we moved from having a disease focus to one about long term change and embedding concepts about health equity,” she said. “We have moved to formally recognize the term minority is reflected and inclusive to so many other demographics, namely people from the gender orientation and sexual identity community and also people who identify as differently abled. It could be any marginalized community.”
With the 2021 Legislative session six months away, the agency has yet to determine concrete ways to translate those perceptual changes into concrete policy.
One idea the agency is considering is having legislation come with a health impact note, which would require proposals to demonstrate what health disparities could manifest if passed.
“We cannot make any promises that we will see something like that in the upcoming session, but that is something we are discussing,” Dortch said.