As COVID-19 hospitalizes Latino and Black people in Austin at disproportionate rates, the Austin City Council on Wednesday deemed racism a public health crisis.
“Solutions come with a clear and explicit statement of the underlying issue,” Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison told KUT after the vote. “You can’t take any action without a plan. You don’t have a plan if you don’t state what the problem is.”
The resolution, which was approved unanimously, does not include funding to tackle racism but directs City Manager Spencer Cronk to work with the city on anti-racist policies.
Paula Rojas, a midwife and a member of Communities of Color United, said this is a “great first step,” but she hopes the city will put money behind its acknowledgment of racism’s harmful health effects.
“A resolution itself has no teeth unless there are clear actions and resources accompanying it,” said Rojas, who said the city has a chance to put money behind its words by allocating more money to Austin Public Health, for example, during their current budget process. “Otherwise if it’s more declarations without action and resources, then it starts to feel like window dressing, to look good to the outside world.”
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, other municipalities and states in the U.S. have publicly recognized the link between racism, health disparities and life expectancy, including Michigan, Ohio and the City of Indianapolis.
In May, Austin Public Health said Latinos in Austin and Travis County made up two-thirds of COVID-19 hospitalizations, even though Latinos only make up roughly one-third of the local population. Nearly 11% of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Central Texas are Black, according to the latest numbers from Austin Public Health, despite the overall population being roughly 7%.
Harper-Madison said the declaration also extends to the health crisis of policing, where Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white men.
“That is a public health crisis,” Harper-Madison told KUT. “That really just fortifies the efforts that we’re making towards absolute, from-the-ground-up transformation with our police department.”
As part of the annual budget process, council members have begun talking about cutting money from the city’s police department.
Since hundreds of Austinites criticized the city for initially proposing a small reduction to the police budget, some council members have proposed tens of millions of dollars in cuts – although some of the changes may not be enacted for this coming budget.
The resolution passed Wednesday asks state leaders to make the same declaration connecting racism and health outcomes.
In 2010, Texas lawmakers created a state office to tackle institutional racism, initially called the Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities. The department, later renamed the Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement, closed in 2018 when state leaders decided to stop funding it.
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