More than 50 people were signed up to speak out at the first hearing in the Ohio Senate for a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. They were some of the more than 130 people and groups who provided written testimony in support of the proposal backed by eight Senate Democrats and one Republican.
Taraja Shephard Allen of Columbus told Senators she’s scared for her black American teenaged son Daylen in a racist America, and that she doesn’t want to have to teach him that he doesn’t have the same rights as others.
“However, racism is a public health crisis. And like any vaccination that I have ever had him receive, the initial injection hurts. But I do it to save his life.”
Committee chair Sen. Dave Burke (R-Marysville) said he was moved by her testimony.
“I don’t know where this goes, but it’s going somewhere, and it’s going to go to a better place," Burke said.
The resolution's sponsors, Sen. Sandra Williams (D-Cleveland) and Sen. Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus), kicked off the full day of testimony.
Williams said racism is embedded in the state's policies - for instance, she said the prison population started to climb after slavery was outlawed, then as prisons started to get overcrowded, inmates were allowed to work for private companies. Then the move to privatize prisons began.
"So then we talk about bail reform – bail might be so high you can’t even afford to get it, pay for it. Then you have people who say, ok, let them out. Then you put on an ankle bracelet," Williams said. "All of these things are making money on off the backs of African Americans."
Among the dozens who testified was Abena Minta, a medical student at Ohio State who's with OSU's chapter of the Student National Medical Association, which is organized by and focused on the needs of black medical students. She talked about feeling "helpless" after the loss of her uncle Bernard Atta, a nurse at the Orient Correctional Facility who died of COVID-19 last month.
"Racism is a public health crisis and the denial of this fact, as lawmakers and legislators, is enabling the inequities and injustices that enable some patients to be offered hospitalization, supportive treatment and screening, while other patients are sent home to quarantine and die to continue," Minta said.
Minta said black women are more likely to die from childbirth, black patients are less likely to receive supportive care, and black and brown people are more likely to be victims of police brutality with their children being left without a parent.
Senate President Larry Obhof (R-Medina) briefly checked in on the hearing. Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1 in the Senate, though one member of his caucus, Sen. Kirk Schuring (R-Canton), has signed on as a co-sponsor of the resolution.
When asked by reporters about the similar resolution pending in the House, Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford) said he agrees racism is a public health crisis, but also that lawmakers have already passed bills that address some of the issues raised in it, such as jobs, judicial system, nutrition, domestic violence and infant/maternal wellness. No House Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors.
If the resolution is passed by both chambers and signed into law, it would be the first state-level measure in the U.S. Franklin County and the cities of Akron, Cleveland and Columbus have already passed similar resolutions.