Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
“Racism and slavery were allowed to take place during the early days of America, but because our foundation is so great, there was a way of eliminating it.” Can you believe that Maryland’s House Minority Leader said this about a bill addressing racism’s effect on public health?
This bill would create a public health research commission in Maryland to examine factors such as access to affordable housing, educational attainment and employment. It would inform the state government on “racial, ethnic, cultural or socioeconomic” health disparities. It has broad support across both parties and a strong chance of becoming law, but there’s only one issue — a 66-word preamble stating that “racism is rooted in the foundation of America” from the beginning of slavery to the creation of Jim Crow laws, which morphed into the War on Drugs, which led to mass incarceration.
It’s not surprising or outlandish to say racism is rooted in America’s foundation. This state’s conservative legislators need to get over their fears of directly addressing racism in America’s foundation and its continued harm on public health. Risking the passage of such an important bill because of this preamble is embarrassing and trivial, and it would be a ridiculous mistake to exclude this preamble from the bill.
Racism almost seems too light of a word to describe the atrocities Black people suffered in creating America. This country’s 13 original colonies thrived off the free labor and rich profits slavery provided. Maryland was one of the colonies included in this country’s establishment, and it allowed for the horrific practice until 1864.
Not only is racism a bedrock of America’s beginnings, but it’s been embedded in all aspects of American life ever since. Since the country’s inception, racial prejudices and biases have infiltrated every part of America: the justice system, education, housing, jobs and more.
Public health isn’t immune from racism, either. There’s almost no better example of this than the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black people and communities of color. Throughout the pandemic, Black people have experienced cases, hospitalizations and deaths at higher rates than white people. Black Americans also are more likely to have chronic health conditions and to work jobs that can’t shift to a virtual setting. These factors are worrisome on their own — together, they’re deadly.
Even after being hit hardest by the pandemic, Black people are still being harmed by vaccine inequity. In this state, about 3.8 times as many white Marylanders have been vaccinated as Black Marylanders.
Though a Republican governor leads this state, both of Maryland’s legislative chambers are Democrat-controlled. It seems safe to assume most Democrats would support this preamble — but despite a Democratic majority in both chambers, the bill’s preamble didn’t even make it past committee in the state Senate. In the Senate, Republicans voted against the preamble and even some conservative Democrats pushed to exclude it, fearing the entire bill would fail on the Senate floor if the preamble remained. These legislators wanted to ensure the bill would pass, even if it was watered down.
However, the House of Delegates approved the bill with the preamble. In order for the bill to become law, the two chambers will need to reconcile those differences. The preamble will either be included in the final bill, or it won’t.
This bill is about researching why public health disparities, such as those that manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic, exist in Maryland and how the state government can rectify them. There’s simply no reason for this state’s legislature to ignore the importance of directly addressing racism in America’s past and present. Despite Maryland’s reputation as a more liberal state, it must still reckon with its racist and discriminatory past to amend its current failings. The bill is a huge step forward in organizing a coordinated legislative response to solving this state’s public health inequities and accounting for race’s role in the process.
There shouldn’t be any debate over racism’s abhorrent role in America’s beginnings. Legislators who refuse to include this bill’s preamble and risk it failing entirely are engaging in silly historical revisionism that doesn’t actually solve anything. Those who deny this fact have nothing to gain from engaging in “patriotic” groups such as the 1776 Commission, which only further racism’s grip on public health and all other aspects of society.
If these legislators truly want a Maryland that’s strong enough to “eliminate” racism, there’s nothing wrong or blasphemous about directly addressing racism. It’s time that politicians in Annapolis get over their fears of confronting racism head-on and pass this bill in its entirety.
Maya Rosenberg is a junior journalism and public policy major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.