Michigan Governor Declares Racism a Public Health Crisis

August 5, 2020 Updated: August 5, 2020

Citing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minorities, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order on Wednesday declaring racism a public health crisis and making “health equity” a major goal.

In signing order 2020-9 (pdf), which cites a range of challenging life circumstances that people of color in Michigan experience and links them to “higher vulnerabilities to public health pandemics including COVID-19,”  Whitmer called for action that would “confront systemic racism head on so we can create a more equitable and just Michigan.”

“Since I was sworn in as governor, I have made it a top priority to include more people of color, more women, and more members of the LGBTQ+ community at the table,” Whitmer said in a statement, hailing her administration’s accomplishments in building “a more inclusive state government” while insisting “there is more work to do.”

In announcing Whitmer’s signing of the executive order, her office cited COVID-19 statistics that show infection rates are around three times higher and death rates are around four times higher for black Michiganders than for white.

Besides declaring racism a public health crisis, the order calls for steps to fight racial discrimination within state government, including by forcing all state employees to undergo implicit bias training, which is meant to reveal and correct “the unconscious preferences we experience without intentional control and how it can impact others.”

“Implicit, unconscious bias exists within each of us, and as public servants we have a duty to understand how our bias can impact the lives of others,” Whitmer said.

Implicit bias testing been criticized by some professionals in the psychoanalytical field, chiefly for its lack of diagnostic ability due to its low rate of “test-retest reliability,” which Professor Jordan Peterson explained in a 2017 talk with psychology students as the ability of a test to deliver roughly the same results when administered repeatedly.

“There’s no evidence whatsoever that those … unconscious bias training programs—retraining programs—have the effect that they’re supposed to have and there’s some evidence that they actually have the reverse effect,” Peterson said at the talk, during which he claimed such tests were misused for political purposes.

“So what good is it? Well, it’s good if you want people to send you to retraining exercises so that you can have your perceptions adjusted in the direction that your organization and state thinks is proper,” Peterson added.

All Michigan state employees, as well as contract and temporary workers, will be required to undergo implicit bias training twice per year, the order says.

Whitmer’s order also directs the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to collect data documenting differences in health outcomes among racial and ethnic groups in Michigan so that it can be used to formulate and implement “equitable policies.”

“Additionally, departments must understand how racial disparities in societal, environmental, and behavioral factors intersect to affect access to resources like good jobs, access to healthy and affordable food and housing, equitable transportation options, and quality public education,” Whitmer’s office said.

With the move, Michigan joins other states, like Colorado and Wisconsin, in declaring racism a public health crisis.

Whitmer’s executive order, which calls on all state departments and agencies to allocate funding and resources to implement its directives, goes into effect on Aug. 5.

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