A Republican Ohio state senator is under fire this week after asking whether “African Americans or the colored population” have been disproportionately affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic because they “do not wash their hands as well as other groups.”
State Sen. Steve Huffman raised the question Tuesday during a hearing on whether to declare racism a public health crisis. Huffman, an emergency room doctor, wanted to know why African American communities are being hit so much harder by the virus, posing the query to Angela Dawson, executive director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health.
“I understand African Americans have a higher incidence of chronic conditions and that makes them more susceptible to death from COVID. But why does it not make them more susceptible to just get COVID?” he asked. “Could it just be that African Americans or the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear a mask? Or do not socially distance themselves? Could that be the explanation for why the higher incidence?”
Dawson, who is black, quickly challenged the senator’s suggestion.
“That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country,” she responded, later adding: “Do all populations need to wash their hands? Absolutely, sir, but that is not where you are going to find the variance and the rationale for why these populations are more vulnerable.”
Huffman’s remarks, which came amid widespread protests calling for racial justice and equality following the death of George Floyd, prompted swift outcry online and from other local lawmakers.
On Thursday, Cleveland.com reported Huffman was fired from his emergency-room physician job for the comments.
“Dr. Huffman’s comments are wholly inconsistent with our values and commitment to creating a tolerant and diverse workplace,” said McHenry Lee, a TeamHealth spokesman, according to Cleveland.com. “TeamHealth has terminated Dr. Huffman’s employment.”
Rep. Stephanie Howse, D, president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus who was present at the hearing, told the Dayton Daily News that Huffman’s word choice and question “highlights what racism is from a systematic perspective.”
“He’s a full legislator, but beyond that, professionally, he’s a doctor,” she said. “When we talk about the health disparities that happen because black folks aren’t believed when they’re actually hurt, they aren’t given the treatment that they need. Do you think that someone who acknowledges the ‘coloreds’ is going to give the love and care that people need when they come through those doors?”
In a phone interview with The Washington Post late Wednesday, Huffman defended himself, insisting that his language was not intended to be derogatory and said he thought the phrases “people of color” and “colored population” were similar.
“People of color would have been better, but they seem to be interchangeable,” he said, before stressing repeatedly that the question had been rhetorical.
“I was trying to focus on why COVID-19 affects people of color at a higher rate since we really do not know all the reasons,” he said.
An April Washington Post analysis of early data from jurisdictions nationwide found that majority-black counties have three times the rate of coronavirus infections and almost six times the rate of deaths in comparison to counties made up of mostly white residents.
Earlier this month, The Post reported that African Americans, who already are affected negatively by health disparities, were largely not prioritized as local governments nationwide scrambled to respond to the virus. Despite pleas from black leaders, a number of the first coronavirus testing sites appeared in whiter, more affluent areas, and educational campaigns about coronavirus prevention and social distancing targeting African American communities were rare, according to The Post.
On Tuesday, as Dawson advocated for racism to be declared a public health crisis in Ohio, she credited the pandemic for revealing underlying social inequities in the state. According to most recent figures, Ohio has more than 39,500 reported cases of coronavirus and at least 2,400 deaths.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and the brutal death of George Floyd unfortunately provided a pivotal point in time to not only focus on our safety and physical health, but on our emotional, mental and spiritual health,” Dawson told members of the Ohio Senate Health, Human Services and Medicaid Committee. “We must prioritize the marginalized and those who are suffering, bearing the burden of disease, illness and death.”
When Huffman raised the question over whether personal hygiene could be a factor driving black infection rates, people attending the hearing visibly reacted, cringing while the lawmaker spoke, state Sen. Cecil Thomas, D, a committee member, told the Daily News.
“He’s an example of why we have to have this discussion about racism and how it impacts people,” Thomas said.
Huffman’s words were met with similar responses on social media Wednesday.
State Rep. Erica Crawley, D, accused Huffman of implying that black people are less hygienic or clean, tweeting, “This right here is the underlying implicit bias/covert racism that was in the question.”
State Rep. Tavia Galonski, D, urged people to vote.
Huffman strongly disputed the criticisms, telling The Post that his words had been “taken out of context.” He also pushed back against concerns raised by critics about his role as a practicing physician.
“Anybody that comes into any emergency room, I give them the very best care regardless of what race they are,” he said.