Flint, MI–When Dr. Kent Key decided Genesee County needed to declare racism a public health crisis, he was at his wit’s end.
“The things that we’ve been experiencing, such as the water crisis, layered with COVID-19, layered with the inhumane and unjust killings of African Americans and other people of color when engaging with law enforcement…I think those were just the elements of a perfect storm brewing,” said Key, executive deputy director for Community Based Organization Partners and faculty at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.
The impacts of racism on health isn’t a new concept for Key, who has been working in public health and having these conversations for the last three decades, but the culmination of recent events moved him to act.
“It’s one thing to know things are happening. It’s another thing to try to do something about it,” he said.
The first thing Key did was contact local activist Nayyirah Shariff, who serves as the director of the grassroots organization Flint Rising, to help him draft a resolution to present to the Genesee County Board of Health.
In just over a week, they had written and passed a resolution that declared racism a public health crisis and called for assessments of the internal policies and procedures within the Genesee County government in order to “create an equity and justice-oriented organization.”
Key and Shariff both work under CBOP and have worked side-by-side towards the same goals for a long time. Together they’ve served on various panels, attended conferences, and gone to Wakandacon, a three-day Afro-futuristic convention.
They consult each other for various projects and they both bring different sets of skills to the table. The two were both engineers at one time, but Key describes himself as more of a researcher while Shariff is more well-versed in politics.
“We were put together to do this work and we’ve had a long friendship since,” said Key.
The actual drafting of the resolution wasn’t the hard part, they said. As a researcher, Key had lots of experience writing proposals, and as an activist, Shariff has written things like this before.
“It was just us taking the time to do it and reaching out to people to have those discussions,” Key said.
Once they had drafted the resolution, the next step was getting it approved by the County Board of Health.
Key finished and sent the resolution to the board just a couple days before their next meeting on June 3.
The Board of Health unanimously approved the resolution and sent it along to the County Commission, the last body needed to make the resolution official in Genesee County.
It was added to their meeting agenda just 24 hours before it was put to a vote on June 10, where it passed 7-2.
Commissioners Ted Henry and Shaun Shumaker voted against it, stating they needed more time to approve it. Key and Shariff felt it could not be approved soon enough.
“We’ve had 400 years to think about racism in this country,” said Key, executive deputy director for Community Based Organization Partners also known as CBOP and faculty at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.
“How much longer? How many more generations have to go through this? How many more deaths have to happen? How many more George Floyds and Eric Garners and so many others? Time is killing us.”
Shariff recalled a personal experience with racism while studying engineering in school.
“In my classes I was the only black person in my class and the only woman in my class, and I had professors not even want to answer my questions because they didn’t feel like I deserved to be in that space,” Shariff said. “That’s just a personal narrative, but when it happens time and time again, it moves away from the personal and is a structural issue, and this is a sense of systemic racism and how it’s showing up.”
The resolution defines racism at different levels. It states that “individual racism is internalized or interpersonal” and that “systemic racism is institutional or structural and is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks.”
Systemic racism “unfairly disadvantages some individuals and communities, unfairly advantages other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”
According to Key and Shariff, the resolution takes the first step in naming racism as a crisis–but it is just the first step.
“The hard work is to ensure that the county and other people who are inside of the institutions that exist in this county are actually allocating resources towards addressing this, and interrogating their own practices,” Shariff said. “We’ve seen a lot of stuff happening over the past couple of weeks that was very performative and prescriptive that had no real substance.”
Shariff said the long-term fight is ensuring that there are resources, and stressed that people are still fighting for resources for the water crisis.
“Budgets are basically a statement of your values because you are prioritizing what you are deciding to allocate resources for,” Shariff said.
The County Board of Commissioners will be voting on the budget in October, so Shariff says it’s important that we start having conversations about the impacts of systemic racism now.
“That is going to have a budget for the county jail and the sheriff’s office and the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office and the health department and all of these things, where if you peel back some layers, you’re seeing how those systems are disproportionately impacting and abusing black people,” Shariff said.
In Michigan, Black people make up about 14% of the population. According to the U.S. Census data from 2010, Black people account for 49% of the incarcerated population in Michigan prisons and jails.
A study of race and COVID-19 infections and deaths show that in Michigan, Black people are disproportionately affected by the virus, making up 33% of infections and 40% of deaths.
In the Board of Health meeting on June 3, Commissioner Shumaker questioned the capacity of the government to correct racism.
“My faith in government, period, that it can handle a situation as saddening and difficult as race…I have no faith in it,” he said. “I believe God almighty we have to hold ourselves accountable to him and only he can heal us. I do not believe an elected official can do this, I don’t believe throwing money at it over the years has fixed anything for anyone. Please excuse me if I do not believe government…has the answer to solve this problem.”
Key feels there is no question.
“Racism is the role of the government. It was built off it,” he said. “The whole concept of police departments and all those things, if we follow the pathology of the history of some of these things, they all have racist undertones, or racist roots.”
“In fact, our country was founded on [racism], when it could declare, in the original Constitution that Africans were three fifths of a human being,” he said. “So for people to say that they can’t see racism, it boggles me because I see it every day.”
Now that the resolution has been approved, Key said the next steps include forming a community think tank to develop ideas for programs and projects to address and dismantle racism and starting a collective conversation.
“We are at the very beginning stages of a reckoning and it’s something that’s been a long time coming,” Shariff said.