Arroyo: Racism is public health crisis in Boston

Councilor wants office to combat racial inequity

RACE HAS LONG CREATED a divide between what should be and what is.

In Boston, that has translated into a struggle to achieve racial parity in exam schools. It has leaked into the travel of black and brown MBTA riders, who experience commutes that are 64 hours longer a year than their white counterparts.

Now, newly minted District 5 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo wants to declare racism as a public health crisis in Boston.

On Wednesday Arroyo advanced a hearing order aimed at creating an independent office to assess whether ordinances and executive orders would exacerbate racial inequity in the city. The office would also hold a hearing to discuss health outcomes of people of color in Boston and the impact racism plays on those health outcomes.

“Declaring racism a public health crisis in Boston is appropriate given the overwhelming evidence racism plays in health inequity, that the majority of residents in the City of Boston are People of Color and that to effectively combat racism we need a large scale solution,” Arroyo wrote in the proposal.

He cited studies by the Boston Public Health Commission, which in 2008 identified racial inequity as a key driver in health disparities in Boston—including that residents of Roxbury have life spans nearly seven years shorter than those of predominantly white Back Bay.

“Every city policy can have a health effect on people,” Arroyo told Yawu Miller of the Bay State Banner. “When you look at data for Latinos and blacks, it’s documented that those outcomes are because of how we’re treated.”

“Much research has linked experiencing explicit and implicit racism to negative health outcomes and a higher death rate,” reads a more recent 2017 Health of Boston report from the Public Health Commission.

The office would make its findings public after assessing city policies and regulations, adding an extra factor to be considered—does a proposed policy increase, decrease, or have no impact on racial parity?

“I ran on a concept that you’ve got to name things and then shame them to change them,” Arroyo said to El Mundo Boston.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Arroyo said he hopes the office could operate similarly to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which issues cost estimates for legislative proposals, but doesn’t have the power to veto those.  

Arroyo said the office could have flagged early on racial inequities at public exam schools and the Boston Police Department’s use of a drug test that produced false positives among African Americans. “If this office existed before, a lot of these kinds of policies wouldn’t have seen the light of day,” he said.

Arroyo, a former public defender, is of Puerto Rican descent and the first person of color to represent Hyde Park. If his proposal moves forward, Boston would follow Milwaukee, Madison, and Pittsburgh in declaring racism a health crisis. One major factor that played into Milwaukee’s decision is that it has the highest black infant mortality rate in the nation.