A Republican Ohio state senator is under fire after asking whether “African Americans or the colored population” have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic because they “do not wash their hands as well as other groups.”
State Sen. Steve Huffman, an emergency room doctor, raised the question Tuesday during a hearing on whether to declare racism a public health crisis.
“I understand African Americans have a higher incidence of chronic conditions and that makes them more susceptible to death from covid. But why does it not make them more susceptible to just get covid?” he asked Angela Dawson, executive director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health. “Could it just be that African Americans or 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 be the explanation for why the higher incidence?”
Dawson, who is black, quickly pushed back against the senator’s suggestion.
“That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country,” she responded, later adding: “Do all populations need to wash their hands? Absolutely, sir, but that is not where you are going to find the variance and the rationale for why these populations are more vulnerable.”
Ohio State Senator Steve Huffman asks if the "colored population" has a higher rate of coronavirus because they don't wash their hands as much. pic.twitter.com/PcfnHSQ8P5
— The Recount (@therecount) June 11, 2020
Huffman’s remarks prompted swift backlash online and from other local lawmakers, including state Rep. Stephanie Howse (D-Cleveland), the president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus.
On Wednesday, Howse told the Dayton Daily News that Huffman’s word choice and question “highlights what racism is from a systematic perspective.”
“He’s a full legislator, but beyond that, professionally, he’s a doctor,” she said. “When we talk about the health disparities that happen because black folks aren’t believed when they’re actually hurt, they aren’t given the treatment that they need. Do you think that someone who acknowledges the ‘coloreds’ is going to give the love and care that people need when they come through those doors?”
In a phone interview with The Washington Post late Wednesday, Huffman defended himself, insisting that his language was not intended to be derogatory and said that he thought the phrases “people of color” and “colored population” were similar.
“People of color would have been better, but they seem to be interchangeable,” he said, before stressing repeatedly that the question had been rhetorical.
“I was trying to focus on why covid-19 affects people of color at a higher rate since we really do not know all the reasons,” he said.