County Leaders Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis

Press release

Organizations representing California’s county behavioral health, human services, public health, and public hospital systems today released a powerful, unified statement acknowledging the “historic and ongoing harms of systemic racism” and committing to address those harms through client and community-centered action and accountability.  They join local governments around California and the country, including the boards of supervisors in at least nine California counties, in declaring racism a public health crisis. 

Today’s action by the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California (CBHDA), County Welfare Directors Association of California (CWDA), County Health Executives Association of California (CHEAC) and California Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems (CAPH) comes as Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities must continuously bear the weight of coping with a confluence of individual personal, as well as broader cultural traumatic events, all rooted in systemic racism.  In the year since outcries over the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others, BIPOC continue to bear the brunt of the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with growing awareness of acts of violence targeting Asian members of our community.

“The COVID-19 pandemic made clear: structural racism threatens the health and well-being of BIPOC.  BIPOC communities were disproportionately burdened with severe illness, hospitalization, and death, because of long-standing barriers to quality health care, and fewer opportunities to live and work where social distancing is possible,” said Michelle Gibbons, CHEAC Executive Director.  “It should not be this way.  Today we are naming racism as a public health crisis, a powerful step toward the policy change and investment needed to meaningfully address racism and inequality in the institutions serving our communities.”

“Our members understand that the experience of racism is itself a social determinant of health and is associated with negative mental health impacts for members of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian and Pacific Islander communities. At the same time, BIPOC communities all too often face barriers, rooted in systemic racism, in accessing life-saving behavioral health treatment,” said Michelle Cabrera, CBHDA Executive Director.  “Addressing the harms done to BIPOC communities within California will take sustained dedication, and investment in community defined solutions. Our organizations commit to working with federal, state, and community partners to create ongoing and meaningful changes to the role of county governments in addressing the trauma caused by systemic racism at all levels.” 

“Our member agencies serve populations who are disproportionately people of color, and who experience  the traumatic effects of systemic racism,” said Cathy Senderling, CWDA Executive Director. “Today we are acknowledging that county governments cannot accept the outcomes of institutional racism, among them poverty and inadequate access to housing, employment, health and increased likelihood of justice system involvement.  We must disavow these longstanding societal problems and share in the responsibility for addressing the resulting harm within local communities.”

“Public hospital and health system staff are fiercely committed to serving their communities and in the pandemic have literally put their lives on the line as frontline essential workers.  Many are themselves BIPOC,” said Erica Murray, CAPH President and CEO.  “We cannot honor their service without actively repudiating the harms done to communities of color because of systemic racism and committing to actionable steps to heal these injustices across our systems.”

CBHDA, CWDA, CHEAC and CAPH affirmed that counties can address racism and racial inequality in California county government and communities with a shared commitment to:

  1. Normalize discussion on race and racial equity.
  2. Support the collection of data and other robust measures of accountability in order to track and assess progress on achieving racial equity.
  3. Strengthen community engagement to ensure equity work empowers the voices and experiences of BIPOC communities, particularly those that are within our systems of care.
  4. Eliminate policies and practices that facilitate or allow discrimination and violence against specific populations (including laws criminalizing these populations) and elevate policies and practices in our member agencies that bolster access to services aimed at overcoming the trauma caused by these policies.
  5. Prioritize investment in promoting racial and economic equity to address social determinants of health.
  6. Implement community-based alternatives to address harms and prevent trauma.
  7. Work with law enforcement agencies to promote better documentation of incidents involving law enforcement and BIPOC; support the expansion of training and accountability aimed at monitoring and improving such interactions with the goal of reducing violence and injuries to BIPOC; support and engage with law enforcement agencies making efforts to improve the use of de-escalation strategies; institute proven approaches to working with BIPOC and individuals with behavioral health issues and disabilities; and create linkages to agencies that address these needs and help promote healing.

Read the full statement attached.