Councilor asks Boston to name racism ‘a public health crisis’

Ricardo Arroyo addresses the Boston City Council. Photo by Jordan Frias

Concerned about racism and inequity in Boston, freshman city councilor Ricardo Arroyo is calling for an independent office to assess how city officials can play a role in reducing racism and its impacts on communities of color.
Arroyo, the chairman of the council’s Committee on Public Health, is requesting that the city declare racism a public health crisis in order to address its impacts on the city’s minority populations.
“Institutions, systems and processes are created and are responsible for their results. Justice here requires acknowledging that these systems and processes are responsible for the racial inequities that they create and that they worsen,” the Hyde Park District Five councilor said in front of his colleagues and father, Suffolk County Register of Probate Felix D. Arroyo, and brother, former at-large councilor Felix G. Arroyo.
If it decides to do so, Boston would join two Wisconsin cities, Madison and Milwaukee, as well as Pittsburgh, PA, in declaring such an emergency.
The proposed office would examine if new policies put forward would further impact black and Latino communities, which have the highest rates of heart disease, diabetes, asthma and infant mortality, according to the Boston Public Health Commission.
It would also attempt to understand how to prevent systemic racism from exacerbating problems in those communities, such as life expectancy, which is lower than that of their white counterparts.
Citing the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association, Arroyo called racism “a driving force in the social determinants of health.”
The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) has said racism influences “all social determinants of health” and has “a harmful impact on health.” 
During Wednesday’s city council meeting, Arroyo urged his colleagues to accept that actions at the municipal level could affect racial equity in public health matters.
“[W]e must ensure that racial equity is at the forefront of everything that we do,” Arroyo said. “One of the ways to ensure this is by creating an independent office that will assess the racial equity impact of all city of Boston initiatives before they are implemented.”
Arroyo argues that applying a racial equity lens to policies, procedures and regulations going forward could achieve desired outcomes in dealing with racial disparities.
“Racism is real, it’s a public health crisis in the city of Boston and requires that we name it, that we shame it and that we change it,” Arroyo said. “We cannot willfully or unknowingly look the other way.”
He noted that it will be a challenge, but said he believes Boston is up to the task. “I have no illusion that tackling racism will be easy. However, there is no other choice.”
Arroyo was met with a standing ovation, and unanimous support from all of the councilors president.
Former council president Andrea Campbell thanked Arroyo for addressing “the hard stuff” in his first piece of legislation presented to the council.
“It touches every issue that we talk about in the city, whether it is access to public schools, health inequities, transportation and transportation deserts [to] parks [and] who has access to green space,” said Campbell, who represents Mattapan and Dorchester, as well as parts of Roslindale and Jamaica Plain.
“[N]one of this work matters if we don’t tackle it with an equity lens,” she added.
Freshman at-large councilor Julia Mejia said the office should address health disparities among people of different socioeconomic statuses, while recognizing the racism and hate she’s experienced during the time of court-ordered desegregation of busing in Boston.
“As we look at the health disparities let us not forget that there are a lot of people who are struggling to make their ends meet, regardless of what their race happens to be,” Mejia said, “And that we cannot forget that poverty is real, and there is a war on poverty, and let’s just make sure that we keep that lens as the health disparity situation unfolds.”
Arroyo concluded by saying, “[T]ogether we can set an example — in the city of Boston and to the world — that we know how to address, that we’re willing to address, and we’re going to do the work to address systemic racism and its ills.”
A hearing on the creation of this office and whether to declare race a public health crisis has been forwarded to the Committee on Public Health, which Arroyo heads.



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