House lawmakers leave racism resolution on the table

Protesters in downtown Columbus in May. Photo by Susan Tebben.

A resolution declaring racism a public health crisis did not receive a hearing before the Ohio House of Representatives left for their summer break. 

The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus announced the measure at the beginning of the month, and it was referred to the House’s State and Local Government Committee on June 3. The bill has 32 cosponsors, all Democrats. 

A companion Senate resolution received a hearing in which hundreds of individuals submitted supportive testimony, and the chair of the Senate Health, Human Services & Medicaid Committee said a second hearing is planned for further proponent testimony. It now has three Republican cosponsors.

In comments to media, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder agreed that racism is a public health crisis, but said many of the issues called for in the House resolution have been considered in the chamber already. He cited the passage of the domestic violence bill Aisha’s Law, school nutrition programs passed in the budget, and other general bills regarding education, criminal justice and other issues.

“I think this chamber has been attentive to the needs of Black Ohioans and we continue to do that,” Householder said. “And we are open to discussion.”

Householder stopped short of saying reducing funding for police and shifting resources to other areas would be happening in this General Assembly.

“We have to make certain that law-abiding citizens especially here in the state of Ohio have the opportunity to be able to protect themselves, their property and their families,” Householder said.

House Republicans have received criticism from Democrats who say they are prioritizing gun laws and other issues over finding a solution for racism. House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, said the lack of action was “abundantly unfair and racist.”

“It is to the detriment of our constituents and the (General Assembly) members to not be able to hear what these Ohioans are saying,” Sykes said on Thursday, after a meeting of the Rules and Reference Committee in which committee member state Rep. Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, asked for an update on movement of the measure. 

Committee Chair state Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, did not have an update, and referred any comment on the issue to Householder when asked about it by media after the meeting. Householder did not attend the committee hearing.

Both the House and Senate said they plan “listening tours” in the state to hear from Ohioans on the issue.

In the midst of calls for the two resolutions, controversies revolving around racism have come up in the legislature. As people began protesting police use of force and the death of Black citizens like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, some Republicans condemned the protesters as “thugs” and violent agitators.

State Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana challenged the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus and the public health crisis measure, saying he was “darker than MOST of the people” pictured in the OLBC. 

Most recently, Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, spoke up in the Senate committee hearing on the racism measure to ask if there was a reason COVID-19 disproportionately affected “the colored population.” 

“Could it just be that African Americans – 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 just be maybe the explanation of why there’s a higher incidence?” Huffman said to the executive director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health. 

Huffman has since been fired from his job as an emergency room doctor in the Dayton area. The ACLU of Ohio and the OLBC have both asked for his resignation or removal from the Senate.