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Sacramento County Might Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis

The Board of Supervisors will consider a resolution to increase the county’s role in addressing systemic racism and to establish an oversight committee. Half of the county’s residents are nonwhite.

(TNS) — The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors will consider a resolution Tuesday that would declare racism a public health crisis, following in the footsteps of several local governments throughout the country after a wave of civil unrest over police shootings and violence.

Black people have higher rates of chronic health conditions — such as high blood pressure, diabetes and strokes — that have intensified during the coronavirus pandemic. The same racial divide can be found in the criminal justice system, housing, infrastructure, and banking.

The Sacramento proposal would acknowledge that the county should have a more active role — when making policy and funding programs — to address longstanding issues around race. Sacramento would join Riverside, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties, among others, which have each passed similar declarations in the past five months.

Board Chairman Phil Serna, who authored the proposal, said the six-page resolution is more than a symbolic gesture and would lead to concrete proposals for residents. "This is intended to be a very deliberate, intentional means of not just articulating our values in Sacramento County when it comes to understanding racism and public health," Serna said, "but understanding that it is an ongoing challenge that we need to be thoughtful about how best to address."

There are 1.5 million people in Sacramento County and more than half of the residents are nonwhite. Black people make up an estimated 9 percent, Asian Americans account for 16 percent and Latinos account for 24 percent.

The proposed declaration does not explicitly allocate funding to any one initiative. It says the county will "prioritize the investment of time and budget in promoting racial equity to address social determinants of health" — meaning, the pre-existing conditions, like air quality and infrastructure, that make some places healthier than others.

'Racism Absolutely is a Public Health Crisis'

The resolution cites the Black Child Legacy Campaign, a long-term effort funded by the county and run by community stakeholders to improve infant and child mortality in certain neighborhoods as an example. The campaign, which started in 2015, helped push down the death rate for both groups by more than 22 percent, according to a recent annual report.

"Racism absolutely is a public health crisis, and I think COVID has only shone a light on that like never before," said Kindra Montgomery-Block, an associate director at the Sierra Health Foundation who oversaw the campaign to improve Black child mortality.

The impact of COVID-19 has been similarly disproportionate with a few ZIP codes seeing higher rates of positive cases.

Montgomery-Block said she finds irony in the declaration, given how slow Sacramento County was to distribute federal CARES Act money to aid those neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color. Most of the $181 million in federal dollars were initially used to cover the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office payroll.

"That decision had huge implications on the health and vitality of Sacramento County's most vulnerable citizens," Montgomery-Block said. "That in itself is a racial, political decision that (enabled) a public health crisis that did not have to be as such."

Serna said the declaration would eliminate any uncertainty about the root cause of certain issues in the community and within the county departments that serve them. The proposal notes that the Board of Supervisors plans to create a committee that would oversee the effort and submit regular reports to them.

"The last thing that any government agency should be is ambiguous about understanding that racism continues to threaten our various missions," Serna said, noting the uneven odds Black and Latino people face with COVID-19. "We cannot afford to be ambiguous in understanding how those disparities continue to plague our county."

(c)2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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