CARSON CITY — Amid a national reckoning on police violence against Black people and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the Nevada Legislature moved to declare racism a public health crisis under a resolution approved by both houses Wednesday.
The resolution, while symbolic, says the Legislature declares “that systemic racism and structures of racial discrimination constitute a public health crisis which is magnified by the disproportionately high impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and which affects the entire State of Nevada.”
It pledges lawmakers to take more action to address racism in the next legislative session and calls for the equitable distribution of federal funding to communities of color “in direct proportion to their disadvantages by individual racial category.”
The Senate approved the measure unanimously on a voice vote in the afternoon, with the Assembly concurring later. Only one member, Assemblyman Chris Edwards, R-Las Vegas, voted no.
“We’re bringing this because we have to recognize that this is a public health crisis. Racism, and all of the structures in our society have been co-opted by people who want to make a difference in terms of who is and who is not welcome to the table,” Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, said before the Senate vote Wednesday. “They have used that power for years to make sure that the health care system has failed us. The education system has failed us. The criminal justice system has failed us.”
The Senate approved the resolution unanimously on a voice vote, moving it to the Assembly for concurrence. As the Senate concluded its vote, Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a proclamation also declaring racism a public health crisis.
Spearman, speaking in the Senate floor, emotionally recounted personal experiences, including a doctor discounting her sick sister’s symptoms and sending her home, where she died hours later.
“So when I think about structural racism it’s not the dictionary definition, it’s my life, and it’s the lives of my family members,” Spearman said. “I’m not going to ask people to agree with me. I just want you to know this is what it feels like to live in a black body in this country and many other parts of the world.”
The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, especially the Black population, throughout the U.S. In the early months of the outbreak, the Review-Journal reported that the virus was disproportionately killing Black and Asian Clark County residents.
In the Las Vegas Valley, Black people make up 12 percent of the population. But over the past five years, Black people make up 32 percent of the those shot by Las Vegas police, according to the department’s statistics.
Sen. Marcia Washington, D-North Las Vegas, said with instances of police violence toward Black people that have sparked protests across the nation, she is scared for her children and grandchildren.
“I worry if I will see them get out of elementary school, go to high school, go to college and become a productive citizen because of this police brutality,” Washington said.
Calls for change
The resolution came during a special session convened in part to address police reforms. The outcry for changes has been heard in nationwide protests that followed the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis police custody in May after an officer kept a knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an order declaring racism as a public health crisis, and creating the Black Leadership Advisory Council that will “elevate Black voices.”
Sisolak, in a statement issued with his proclamation, said institutional and systemic racism “has gone on far too long in this country and in this State.”
“Based on research, we are taking a proactive approach in joining fellow leaders around the country to declare racism as a public health crisis,” he said.
Experts and studies have shown that racism has adversely impacted the health of minority communities. This has been demonstrated in many forms, including inequitable access to mental health services and a lack of educational and career opportunities.
Sen. Dallas Harris, D-Las Vegas, said that the resolution is essentially taking a page from the Alcoholics Anonymous playbook when it comes to addressing systemic racism.
“Step 1 is to admit you’ve got a problem,” Harris said. “It’s something that we’ve all been afraid to address for so long, but you can’t address it if you don’t admit it.”
Harris said that not only has the system failed the Black community, “it’s working as it was intended to.”
“We’ve got to admit that we have a lot of work to do in order to unwind 400 years of barriers that were set up on purpose,” Harris added.
Spearman said she knows that some people get “uppity about Black Lives Matter,” and raise counter-phrases like “Blue lives matter” or “All lives matter.”
“If a house is on fire and the firefighters show up, they work on the house that is on fire,” Spearman said. “Every other house on that block is important, but you have one house that’s on fire. And our house in on fire now.”
Police reform passed
During the second special session, lawmakers passedtwo bills aimed at tackling the issue of police reform.
Assembly Bill 3 banned police use of chokeholds and makes it mandatory for police officers to intervene if they see another officer using excessive force. Senate Bill 2 repealed portions of a bill passed in 2019 that reform advocates decried as granting police officers accused of misconduct even greater protections.
Some advocates, however, have said that the changes made during the special session haven’t gone far enough to address the policing problem.
Spearman said that lawmakers did “as much as we can do” in the condensed special session, but hope that what they did will lay a foundation for lawmakers to build upon next year when the Legislature reconvenes.
“If it’s up to me,” added Harris, “there is more that will be done. Not only should. There is more that will be done.”