COLUMBUS — State Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, drew criticism this week when he used what many consider to be a racial pejorative when he asked if “African Americans or the colored population” are more susceptible to COVID-19 because they “do not know how to wash their hands as well as other groups” during a committee hearing.
The hearing was conducted Tuesday when Angela Dawson, director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health, was speaking with the Ohio Senate Health, Human Services, and Medicaid Committee on how African Americans are already disproportionately affected by diseases like diabetes and heart disease during a conversation on how African Americans are being impacted more by the coronavirus.
Dawson said “communities of color, African Americans,” already experience disparities in the state of Ohio when it comes to diseases and illnesses like diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and other preventable diseases, adding that black Ohioans are “77 percent more likely to die from diabetes than whites.”
“So there is already a higher disparity of African Americans who will have diabetes or stroke or heart disease,” Dawson said. “So when we do not address the disparities that exist before a pandemic— when the pandemic comes and the vulnerable population are those with disparities— it will naturally move and impact those who have higher disparities in health issues than those who don’t.”
Huffman, who has been a practicing physician for 20 years, responded, saying, “I understand African Americans have a higher incidence of chronic conditions and that makes them more susceptible to death from COVID. But why — but it does not make them more susceptible just to get COVID. We know it’s twice as often, correct?”
Huffman went on to ask,“Could it just be that African Americans or the colored population do not know how to wash their hands as well as other groups or wear a mask or do not socially distance themselves? Could that just be the explanation of the higher incidence?” Huffman was also not wearing a face mask when he asked this.
Dawson responded, saying, “That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country.” She cited the Centers for Disease Control, the Health Resources and Services Administration, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dawson went on to say that while everyone needs to wash their hands, Huffman’s question about African Americans was not where they would find the reason as to why African Americans are more vulnerable.
The pandemic is disproportionately affecting minorities in Ohio as it is elsewhere, state records show. People who are black make up 17 percent of COVID-19 deaths, 26 percent of all cases and 31 percent of hospitalizations, although they make up only about 13 percent of Ohioans.
The term “colored” was predominantly used during the Jim Crow era and is generally viewed as an offensive term in the 21st century.
Huffman has not yet responded to a request for comment.
On Thursday, the ACLU of Ohio called for Huffman to step down from public office following “inexcusable remarks against black and brown Ohioans.” In a press release, the ACLU of Ohio said Huffman’s comments were “explicitly racist,” “invoked deeply troubling sentiments and imagery,” and were “reprehensible.”
“Steve Huffman must immediately step down from public office, and if he refuses to do so, he must be removed from the Ohio State Senate,” said J. Bennett Guess, executive director for the ACLU of Ohio. “As a practicing physician of nearly 20 years, he knew precisely what type of harm his ignorant, heinous, and callously hurtful comments would have on communities of color in Ohio.”
Guess went on to call Huffman’s remarks “racist,” adding, “this is what systemic institutionalized racism looks like, and this is how it manifests itself and oppresses the day-to-day lives of people of color.”
“There is no reality where he can remain a member of the Ohio General Assembly and make decisions that affect the very communities he undermines and clearly holds such contemptible attitudes,” Guess said. Guess later added, “When willful hatred appears so blatantly and painfully, there is no logical move except to name it and stop it. Until we address white supremacy and white privilege in our public institutions and hold our public officials accountable, we will not have peace.”
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