Letter: Easton Resolution on Racism and Public Health: Why it Matters

To the Editor: 

Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG) professes to “protect and sustain the traditional processes of governance in our town by providing accurate information on issues important to Easton residents”. However, the recent literature generated by the organization on the subject of racism does not hold up to that standard.

A letter published in the Easton Courier on February 24 characterizes the decision of the Board of Selectmen to unanimously adopt a resolution addressing the impact of racism on health on August 20, 2021 as “a misstep” and supports a reversal of the decision. The authors, Sherry Harris and June Logie, are CRG officers. As the Easton resident who proposed that we join the statewide movement to acknowledge the impact of racism on health in our nation, state and local communities, I am compelled to address the misrepresentation of facts in the letter and to clarify the reasoning behind this resolution and its relevance in Easton.

First, the authors assert that the resolution passed by the BOS on 8/20/20 declares racism a public health crisis in Easton. While there is just cause for using the term “crisis” in these declarations, and many other towns that have adopted similar resolutions have done so, the Easton resolution is purposely titled “Easton Resolution on Racism and Public Health” and states that “the BOS of Easton acknowledge that racism is a growing public health concern affecting our town and all of CT” and avows to support action at all levels, local, state and national, including promoting racial and health equity in policies and enhancing educational efforts about racism and its harmful effects.

Harris and Logie also criticize the resolution for stating that racism is the cause of poverty and disparate outcomes in health and other areas when in fact the language of the resolution is that racism is a cause, not the only one, while also stressing that discrimination based on racism has exacerbated “ a health divide in our state resulting in people of color in CT bearing a disproportionate burden of illness and death in numerous areas including COVID 19, heart disease, diabetes, infant mortality, HIV/AIDS and more”.

The authors also object to Easton’s joining a statewide movement from “outside our borders”. Indeed the reader might think Easton is a fortress, surrounded by walls. In reality, public health issues transcend geographic borders, as COVID has so dramatically demonstrated. In the midst of a true public health crisis and national reckoning with the legacy and continued impact of systemic racism, Easton would do well to align with reputable organizations such as Health Equity Solutions that are working to change policy and practices statewide that ultimately benefit everyone.

Following the Harris-Logie letter, a circular titled “Get Involved Easton: Critical Race Theory – Social Justice – Intersectionality” arrived in the mailboxes of Eason residents also produced by members of CRG. The circular includes an article titled “Racism has been declared a Public Health Crisis in Easton”. Similar to the misinformation in the letter by Harris and Logie, this article distorts the purpose of the resolution and includes inaccurate statements.

The CRG publication implies that there is no evidence of systemic racism, particularly in Easton, and that the current focus on racism is a passing phase that Easton should somehow ignore. While it may be true that racism was not receiving the attention we are witnessing today around the country and in our state, other residents who have commented on the CRG publication aptly note that the lack of discussion of racism in Easton does not mean it is a nonissue. That said Easton’s Resolution on Racism and Public Health was not predicated on an assumption of “pervasive racism in Easton” as stated in the CRG publication, nor are these resolutions meant to imply wrongdoing on the part of towns and cities who choose to make such declarations.

Both of the CRG articles about the resolution discount the existence of racial and economic health disparities in our state and region and the impact of racism on our collective health, and cast Easton as a place where such problems do not exist, immune from the effects of systemic racism and the responsibility to assess our own practices and policies and take action to advance racial and health equity. In fact, there is a vast body of scientific literature documenting the existence of gross health inequities by race, ethnicity and income, and describing the effects of racism on health outcomes https://youtu.be/VzyjDR_AWzE

The disproportionate impact of the COVID pandemic on Black and Latinx people in CT underscores the entrenched nature of health inequities and reflects the reality that many people of color live in crowded housing, with low incomes, work in jobs that increase their exposure to COVID, and have pre-existing health conditions that increase their risk of severe illness and death from COVID. A recent publication “Towards Health Equity in CT: the role of social inequality and the impact of COVID-19” by DataHaven https://ctdatahaven.org/reports/ provides an in-depth profile of these issues based on statewide, regional and local data from urban, suburban and rural towns across the state including Fairfield County.

On March 4 the BOS voted to rescind our resolution on racism and public health and put it out for public comment. Easton residents will have opportunity to voice their opinion on the resolution at the annual town meeting in April and before, through other public meetings and articles in the Easton Courier and other local media. Twenty cities and towns in CT have passed similar resolutions acknowledging the impact of racism on public health since this statewide initiative was launched, including our neighbors in Westport and Bridgeport. If Easton ultimately chooses to withdraw the resolution it will be the first town to do so, and a most unfortunate distinction for our community.

Public health is about the common good and what we do collectively as a society to assure the conditions in which all people can enjoy optimal health. It is my hope that the purpose and good intentions of the Easton resolution on racism and public health will be recognized and embraced and that those who question the basis of the resolution will take the time to learn more about the profound impact of health inequities and systemic racism on all of us and choose to join those who are working for positive change.

Elaine O’Keefe

Easton

Elaine O’Keefe has lived in Easton for 25 years. She is a former public health professional who worked in local health departments and at the Yale School of Public Health for nearly 40 years. She continues to serve on several health focused boards, and is a member of the Easton Diversity and Inclusion Task Force.

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