Ohio House Dem Leader: ‘Willful ignorance’ only reason for lack of action on racism

Protesters in downtown Columbus. Photo by Susan Tebben.

The Ohio House Minority Leader says it is up to white people to address the societies and legislation that they built to be discriminatory.

On day five of protests surrounding the Ohio Statehouse, Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes said the state’s government needs to “lead the nation” in passing a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. 

“We have two viruses that are disproportionately killing black people right now, racism and the coronavirus,” Sykes said in a Monday conference call with the media. “The world is watching how we’re handling both, and we’re not doing a great job.”

State Rep. Emilia Sykes, D-Akron. Photo courtesy the Ohio House website.

The conference call came as demonstrations continue in Columbus and around the country in response to the Minneapolis death of George Floyd and others who have died in police custody or officer-involved incidents.

Sykes criticized the use of task forces and study groups as places racial issues are relegated due to lack of interest by leadership. She mentioned Ohio’s Task Force on Community-Police Relations, brought together in 2016 by then-Gov. John Kasich after the Cleveland death of Tamir Rice and the Beavercreek death of John Crawford III. 

The task force released a final report in 2018 with recommendations like using a database for use of force in officer-involved shootings, assessing the grand jury process when it comes to officer-involved incidents, and legislation regarding anti-profiling. 

Sykes said even with all the recommendations, none of the report’s concepts have been enacted and the funding has been cut to the task force’s work.

“Clearly there is a decline in this as a priority, and it is shown in the funding level,” Sykes said

But the biggest problem Sykes sees in getting legislation passed is the Republican supermajority, and even the Republican-majority Ohio Supreme Court.

“These are the people that have the power to protect black people and we hear you loud and we hear you clearly by your inaction that you do not believe that black lives matter,” the leader said.

In discussing several bills that House Democrats have proposed on discrimination, diversity and inclusion efforts that “are falling on deaf ears,” she said one bill that will be getting a hearing is a Republican-sponsored stand-your-ground firearm bill.

“It is controversy at its finest, it is tone deaf, it is disrespectful and outright offensive and insulting to have a bill on stand-your-ground, a bill that is responsible for the death of so many black and brown bodies,” Sykes said.

Sykes, along with the rest of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus plan to introduce legislation this week declaring racism a statewide public health crisis, but the Minority Leader said getting to the root of the issue has to involve those that created the societies that house racism.

“People who look like me did not create these systems and these institutions to be discriminatory,” Sykes said. “It is the work of white people to make sure that there is fairness and that the privilege that many people enjoy is checked and acknowledged.”