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County Council Deems Racism A Public Health Crisis In Party-Line Vote

Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
Democratic Allegheny County Councilor Liv Bennett was the primary sponsor of a non-binding motion that seeks to advance racial equity in the county.

A motion to declare racism a public health crisis passed along party lines at Allegheny County Council Tuesday. The body’s 12 Democrats voted to approve the symbolic measure, while all three Republican councilors were opposed.

Democrats Liv Bennett and DeWitt Walton introduced the legislation amid growing evidence the coronavirus has taken a tougher toll on the country’s black Americans and the poor. It includes several recommendations that would have the county put racial equity at the forefront of policies and procedures, boost diversity among personnel, and intensify outreach efforts in communities of color.

Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Democrat DeWitt Walton, seen in an archival photo, co-sponsored an Allegheny County Council motion that calls racism a public health crisis. Other co-sponsors included Democrats Liv Bennett, Bethany Hallam, Paul Klein, and Anita Prizio.

“This is not just a black issue,” Walton said when County Council met via teleconference Tuesday. “This is an issue that impacts the totality of Allegheny County and our nation as a whole, because while it has health implications, it also has economic implications. And it places greater burden, greater disparities on all of our society.”

In Allegheny County, black residents have been harder hit than other racial groups by the coronavirus. The county reports that black individuals account for at least 19 percent of COVID-19 cases, while comprising just 13.4 percent of the population. White residents, meanwhile, account for 55 percent of diagnoses while making up 80 percent of the county population. The county’s Asian Americans have also experienced disproportionately low infection rates.

In an interview before Tuesday’s meeting, Walton called the pandemic “a perfect example of the disparities in health and societal issues in general.” He noted that such disparities were thoroughly documented before the coronavirus crisis took hold, and he said Tuesday’s motion seeks “to drive a conversation and a deeper dive in the totality of the problem.”

Republican Councilor Sam DeMarco balked at text in the resolution that stated that race and racism are social creations that advantage whites at the expense of racial minority groups.

“It seems that they’re calling out whites as a collective,” DeMarco said of the motion’s sponsors. “That language I just can’t support. To the folks on the right, we believe that white privilege is something that’s just been created by the left to try to create division.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Democrats Nick Futules, Bob Macey, and John Palmiere said they shared DeMarco’s concerns even though they would support the legislation.

Bennett said the motion stemmed from conversations within the Pittsburgh Black Elected Officials Coalition, which includes state and local officials. County Council’s legislation is modeled off proposals at Pittsburgh City Council to adopt 10 commitments aimed at promoting racial equity and to create a commission to monitor the city’s progress on those scores, Bennett and Walton said. 

“While it’s great that this is happening in the city,” Bennett said, “we really need to expand this to the county to be able to have the impact that is needed.”

She hopes the initiative will evolve into a statewide policy, too.

“We are trying to do this at every level to really, really start the equity work and do the equity work that needs to be done in our region, and do it collaboratively across boundaries and areas of government,” Bennett said.

Such efforts were spurred in large part by a 2019 study that revealed staggering racial disparities in Pittsburgh on a host of metrics, and Bennett said the county’s efforts should focus on ameliorating those outcomes.

The city’s Gender Equity Commission found that black women and men, and other men of color, do not live as long as their white peers. Black health care professionals, furthermore, have said they’ve witnessed discriminatory treatment of patients in local hospitals.

Republican councilor Cindy Kirk disputed such accounts on Tuesday. A nurse administrator at UPMC, she said she had never observed racial bias among “health care workers … in 40 years working at several different hospitals and [in] outpatient [treatment].”

But the data in the Gender Equity Commission report show that when it comes to a lengthy list of health outcomes, Pittsburgh’s black residents face the worst prospects. Black women in Pittsburgh, for example, are more likely to die during pregnancy, compared to their white counterparts and black women in 97 percent of similar U.S. cities. Black men in Pittsburgh, meanwhile, face a higher risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, drug overdoses and other adverse outcomes, relative to similar cities, according to the commission’s research.

The resolution that passed Tuesday draws on such findings in defining racism as a public health crisis. It also calls on the county to continue to make racial equity a “core element” of internal policies and procedures, to conduct ongoing assessments, and “to increase diversity and to incorporate antiracism principles across leadership, staffing and contracting.”

In addition, the legislation recommends that the county should undertake efforts to expand education on racism and its health impacts. And it says the county could help “members of local government to engage actively and authentically with communities of color” while also building partnerships with organizations that promote racial justice and advocating for policies meant to improve health outcomes for minorities.

Walton said the county’s newly named Equity and Inclusion Department exemplifies the motion’s goals. Formerly the Minority, Women, and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Department, the agency has traditionally strived to increase participation in county contracts among firms whose leaders belong to historically underrepresented groups. This year, however, it undertook new efforts to promote racial equity in the workplace and to encourage government offices to engage in more community outreach.

Walton praised County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s administration for overseeing this change.

In fact, the county executive’s office holds much of the power to carry out the objectives of Tuesday’s non-binding resolution, and Walton said he hopes the legislation will lead officials “to take a broader and deeper look at [racial] disparities and try to find ways to resolve many if not all of them.”