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Ohio Senate Committee Hears More Testimony On Racism As A Public Health Crisis

Protesters in front of the Ohio Statehouse in honor of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020.
Paige Pfleger
Protesters in front of the Ohio Statehouse in honor of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020.

An Ohio Senate committee on Wednesday continued to hear testimony on a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis, hearing from nearly a dozen witnesses. State Rep. Dave Burke (R-Marysville), chair of the Health, Human Services and Medicaid Committee, plans to hold a third hearing before a vote that would take the resolution to the full Senate. 

Ronnie Dunn, an urban studies professor at Cleveland State University, was among the witnesses, offering Cuyahoga County statistics in his testimony supporting the legislation.  

"There is a five-year difference in the average life expectancy for Blacks and whites," Dunn said. "Blacks in the county have an average life expectancy of 72.4 years of age compared to 78.2 years for whites."

That gap exists even between municipalities that are geographically close, Dunn said.

"Seventy years for African Americans living in the predominantly black St. Clair-Superior neighborhood on Cleveland's East Side, compared to 82 years for residents living in the predominantly white suburb of Lyndhurst just 12 miles away," Dunn said.

Dunn also expressed appreciation for bringing the discussion front and center in Ohio and across the United States, spurred by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police officers. Dunn said the video of Floyd's death had a greater impact than other recordings of police use of force.

"This video struck White America in a way that others hadn't, and I believe it was because we were shut down at home and their families were there, their children, and they had to explain this," Dunn told the committee.

Jessica Roach, CEO of Restoring Our Own Through Transformation, said her group is in favor of the bill, but that support is conditional.

"We expect tangible deliverables that will include strict accountability and Black community-level inclusion," Roach said. "We expect that Black-led community-based organizations and community members directly impacted by racist practices, racist health inequities and negative interactions with law enforcement born from racism be the first to be appointed to the advisory council.

"We expect specifically," she continued, "that Black-led, owned and operated organizations, not just predominantly white institutions that have Black employees on their marketing materials, but no real role of autonomy, be appointed with priority."

Continuing the discussion with a third hearing could incorporate opposing testimony, Burke said.

"Should there be any – I don't know – and then obviously, since we are in a learning process, responding with our caucuses and colleagues on the work itself and then having that discussion," Burke said. “But I am one of 33. Along with the bill sponsors, that’s at least three. We’ll mature this conversation and have a better answer when the committee meets again in a week or so.”

Burke referred to moving the legislation in question, SCR 14, past the committee to the full Ohio Senate. There, it will need broad support from Republicans, who hold 24 of the chamber's 33 seats.

Burke’s co-chairman on the committee is state Sen. Steve Huffman (R-Tipp City), who apologized earlier this monthafter making inflammatory and derogatory commentsabout African Americans and susceptibility to COVID-19. Huffman did not appear to speak on the record or ask witnesses any questions during Wednesday’s hearing.

Local governments across Ohio are already on the way to declaring racism a public health crisis ahead of state lawmakers, including ClevelandAkron and Summit County. Columbus City Council and the Franklin County Board of Commissioners passed their own resolutions in the last month.