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On June 1, 2020, Natoya Walker Minor, Cleveland’s Chief of Public Affairs, addressed Cleveland City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee.
“Our health…is determined in part by the social and economic opportunities and the lack of resources in our communities, in our homes, in our neighborhoods,” she said. “Disparity reigns.”
The committee invited her to speak that day because it was discussing a related piece of legislation that originated months earlier, in March. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, that legislation, a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, took on new significance. It passed just two days after the committee meeting, on June 3.
Cleveland City Council wasn’t alone in passing such a resolution. Cuyahoga County Council followed suit in July 2020. Of the 60 municipalities in the county, 10 towns and cities, which together include roughly 45% of the county’s population, have declared racism a public health crisis since 2020, according to an analysis by The Land. An additional six cities passed resolutions condemning racism without specifically mentioning its effects on public health. Of those 16, six also created work groups or committees to address racism and promote equity. More than 100 local businesses and nonprofit organizations pledged to address racism as a public health crisis, too, as part of an initiative led by the Greater Cleveland Partnership.
The Land obtained this data by searching through legislative archives along with meeting minutes and agendas for council meetings from early 2020 to early 2021 in every municipality in Cuyahoga County; however, not every municipality keeps perfect records, and some officials did not return phone calls seeking clarification in time for this article’s publication. Please let us know if we missed any or reported any incorrectly.
Has your city declared racism a public health crisis? How has that affected you? The Land would like to interview you about it. We’re looking for firsthand accounts of the impacts of these resolutions. Please reach out to The Land if you have a story to share.
In the U.S., Ohio has the second-highest number of major municipalities declaring racism a public health crisis in the nation, just behind California, according to an analysis published in the medical journal Frontiers in Public Health in August 2021. Those researchers counted 22 municipal governments, but the American Public Health Association counted 27, including county health boards and a few municipalities missed in the Frontiers analysis. The Land’s analysis of Cuyahoga County alone, however, shows that both counts missed several small cities in the area.
What do all these declarations mean? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approaching racism as a public health crisis means recognizing that people face inequitable health outcomes as a result of their skin color. According to the National Institutes of Health, racism refers to a system in which one group has the power to carry out discrimination against others through enacting institutional policies and shaping cultural beliefs.
That kind of systemic racism, the CDC says, plays out in social and environmental factors that impact health such as access to housing, education, employment, criminal justice and food. “To build a healthier America for all, we must confront the systems and policies that have resulted in the generational injustice that has given rise to racial and ethnic health inequities,” the CDC says.
In Cleveland, residents in the city’s lower-income, mostly Black neighborhoods on the east side are far more likely to suffer from chronic health problems such as asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Worse, they’re also saddled with a noticeably shorter life expectancy.
In Cuyahoga County, life expectancy is shortest in those neighborhoods plagued with chronic health conditions. It’s longest in wealthier, mostly-white suburbs.
According to 2019 data from The Center for Community Solutions, residents in a portion of Cleveland’s Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood could expect to live about 65 years. Just two miles down the road in a portion of Shaker Heights, just past the Cleveland border, the same figure was 88 years.
The population in Buckeye-Woodhill is 92.2 percent Black and 5.3 percent white, and the neighborhood has a median annual household income of $18,185. In Shaker Heights, the population is 56.4 percent white and 35.2 percent Black, and the city has a median income of $87,235.
The disparity in infant mortality rates, along racial lines in Cleveland is startling, with Black babies dying before their first birthdays at significantly higher rates than white babies. In 2020, the Cuyahoga County infant mortality rate for Black babies was 1.46%. For white babies, meanwhile, the rate was 0.2 percent, a 30-year low.
Many of the governmental bodies declaring racism a public health crisis specifically mention those so-called social determinants of health such as access to housing and employment and cite statistics for life expectancy and infant mortality. That differs from other anti-racism declarations passed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, like those of Bay Village city council and North Olmsted City Council, which generally denounce discrimination without acknowedging specifically that it’s a system-wide issue impacting public health.
Experts say racism as a public health crisis declarations are important because they acknowledge that racism’s danger lies in the systemic power that reinforces it. What’s more, these resolutions point out how racism affects the health of an entire community, and that addressing it should be at the center of government efforts to create a healthier, more equitable society.
“We have to understand that there are seemingly neutral policies and practices that are rooted in institutional racism in our society that produce inequitable outcomes that become oppressive systems for underserved people in our communities, minorities, those who are forgotten, etc.,” said Robert Solomon, the vice president of Case Western Reserve University’s Office for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity.
“So it’s important to not only look at the bad actors, but we need to look at systems that are in place that produce inequitable results.”
This story was produced in partnership with Ideastream’s Connecting the Dots series as part of an ongoing initiative reporting on what declaring racism a public health crisis means for local governments and organizations. The Land seeks to foster accountability among those that pledged to address health disparities and document what progress has been made toward that end.
Have legislation to add to the map? Email Michael Indriolo at [email protected].
Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land
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