Lt. gov.: Health crisis declaration will help correct racial disparities

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The state of Michigan is working to assemble a Black Leadership Advisory Council after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared racism a public health crisis in an executive directive Wednesday. 

“We have a responsibility as leaders in a time such as this to act with all of the tools that the people of the state of Michigan have entrusted us to wield,” Lt. Gov. Galvin Gilchrist II, the first Black person to hold that office, said.

Gilchrist said there are stark disparities in education, income and health care and those disparities have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the U.S. Census, Black people make up about 15% of Michigan’s population. Despite that, state reports show Black people made up about 25% of all COVID-19 patients in the state. The data also shows that Black people accounted for nearly 40% of all COVID-19-related deaths.

State data shows disparities in infant mortality rates, too. A report shows that for every 1,000 live births in 2018, 15 Black children died. In comparison, four white children died for every 1000 live births. That means Black children were three times more likely to die before the age of 1. There was no data in the chart to depict the exact numbers for Asian and Latino communities. 

“That is all rooted, frankly, in racism and how racism and prejudice have led to systems that exclude Black folks and other communities of color from opportunity,” Gilchrist explained.

He said there are also racial disparities in housing tied to a long history of systemic oppression.

“We’ve seen tremendous inequities when it comes to redlining, how black folks weren’t able to get financing or loans to live in certain parts of our state. We saw this is a huge way especially in places like Detroit and Grand Rapids and some of those challenges still persist today,” Gilchrist told News 8 in a Thursday video call.

In addition to the advisory council, Whitmer’s executive directive calls for all state employees to take racial bias training. 

“Black and brown folks who have lived this our entire lives know that (racism is a public health crisis) already. So for us it just seems like a gesture,” Greater Grand Rapids NAACP President Cle Jackson said. “It’s a nice gesture and we’ll take that but at the end of the day, what is the governor and the state Legislature going to do to actually change policy?”

Jackson says local and state jurisdictions have created other task forces over the years and still, marginalized communities have seen very little tangible change. He said the governor’s office should use the power it already has to repeal laws like “stand your ground” and raise the minimum wage to empower communities of color. 

“It’s tough work. It’s hard work but I think collectively if those of us who are ‘leaders’ and those of us in ‘positions of power,’ if we are intentional and really trying to move the needle forward, we can start to chip away at that mountain,” Jackson said.

Other local organizations say while the state remains in the beginning stages of addressing racial injustice, they’re cautiously optimistic.

“We are glad to see an acknowledgement on the part of our state government of the present crisis at hand,” said Rori Harris with Justice for Black Lives Grand Rapids. “However, it’s too early to comment on whether or not this measure will be effective in addressing issues of systemic racism.”

Harris’ organization was present at several protests pushing for racial justice and equity. It was also very vocal in the movement to defund Grand Rapids Police Department and called for accountability on the part of officers. 

“The effects of racism are not limited to public health and any solutions aimed at addressing it therefore must have a broad focus. We are eager to see what comes out of this effort,” Harris said.

The state says it will be accepting applications for the advisory council through its website for the next two weeks. The council will be made up of 16 people. 

“The state of Michigan recognizes the harm that has been done by racism and prejudice in our state historically and now the state of Michigan recognizes that we have the power to respond to that and to address that inequity so that going forward, we can hopefully change those outcomes and eradicate those barriers that have been erected by racism and we are looking forward to working with every community to make that true,” Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist says they hope to have at minimum one person who is between the ages 18 and 35 on the advisory council. He also says they need to have at minimum one person who is an immigrant or has direct experiences with U.S. immigration policies. 

He said there should be movement from the council by the end of the year.