Milwaukee County Declares Racism a Public Health Crisis



Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele signed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis that affects society as a whole. “It is Milwaukee County’s responsibility to address racism, including seeking solutions to reshape the discourse, actively engaging all citizens in racial justice work,” Mr. Abele said in a statement. “Local government needs to take a leadership role and we intend to do so.”

Mr. Abele said at the signing on May 20 that Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most populous county, leads “in an unfortunate way the racial disparities in employment, in education, incarceration, income and even things like … access to capital.”

Babies born to Black mothers often have lower birth weights and are often born under stress because their mothers live with the stress of being Black women in America, County Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde told the Board of Supervisors when it approved the resolution on April 25. He cited the unemployment rate of Black men, especially in cities like Milwaukee, and the prison rate in Wisconsin.

Mr. Moore Omokunde told the Journal Sentinel that there is a lack of urgency when it comes to addressing the needs of African Americans. “It needs to be an emergency,” he said at the Board of Supervisors meeting in April. “We need to treat it as if there was an outbreak of measles, an outbreak of mumps, an outbreak of any kind of disease or as much as we take seriously the opioid epidemic in the state of Wisconsin, we need to look at the issues that face African-Americans in this county.”

The Milwaukee County Board and County Executive Abele created the Office on African American Affairs in 2016 to address racial inequality in the county. Last fall, the office launched racial equity training for county leaders and it plans to train all 4000 county employees this year.

“We understand that Milwaukee’s racial inequities are historical, complex and interrelated,” Nicole Brookshire, director of the Office on African American Affairs, said in a statement. After the signing, she told reporters that racism is deep-rooted and linked to negative health outcomes. “We need to address racism as a public health crisis but on a large scale to make sure that we transform our culture, transform how we serve our residents and we drive solutions that are equitable,” she said.

Mr. Abele said that the resolution is about making a public commitment to taking action. Every decision across the county should be framed in terms of how to make a difference in addressing racial disparities, he said. “We want every single person who works for the county, every decision they make, to be thinking, ‘How can I make this decision in a way that is more effective and more likely to make a difference to these disparities?”

Specifically, the county resolves to:

  • Assess internal policies and procedures to make sure racial equity is a core element of the county.
  • Work to create an inclusive organization and identify specific activities to increase diversity.
  • Incorporate inclusion and equity, and offer educational training to expand employees’ understanding of how racism affects people.
  • Advocate for policies that improve health in communities of color.
  • Encourage other local, state and national entities to recognize racism as a public health crisis.

County Board Vice Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson told Fox 6 News that the zip code she grew up in—53206—is the most incarcerated zip code in the country. “We’ll be on the right side of history as we re-write the text for what it means to grow up as a Milwaukeean,” she said at the signing. “We cannot rest until every citizen is treated with dignity and respect and this resolution is a step in that direction.”