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Amid furor over senator’s comments, colleagues try to get hearings on racism back on track

Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal

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Photo by Laura's Lenses LLC

Comments last week by Ohio Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, are probably the one thing Americans are most likely to know about the Ohio Senate right now.

But while Huffman’s comments were, to put it charitably, racially insensitive, other members of the Health, Human Services and Medicaid Committee worry that the national media response to them has obscured the purpose of the hearing during which they occurred.

That was to talk about racism and bias in Ohio.

“To me 11 hours was so beyond one misguided question,” committee Chairman Dave Burke, R-Marysville, said last week.

Called in the wake of the May 25 killing of an unarmed Black man at the hands of the Minneapolis police, the June 9 hearing in Ohio was to discuss a resolution to declare racism a public-health crisis. Scores of elected officials, health experts, activists and regular citizens were there to speak.

Hours in, Angela Dawson, executive director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health, testified about racial health disparities and how they made the Black community more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Huffman, a physician, told Dawson he understood how chronic health conditions made Black people more likely to die from the disease, but he wanted to know why they are more likely to get it in the first place.

“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? That could be the explanation of the higher incidence?” the Dayton Daily News reported Huffman as asking.

The story went viral, with national publications such as the Washington Post picking it up. Huffman was fired from his job as an emergency room doctor the next day. He apologized, saying in a Facebook post that his “choice of words was unacceptable and hurtful.”

A Black member of the committee, Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, on Tuesday said the episode and the fallout show the need for such hearings to go forward.

He said Huffman and many others have focused on Huffman’s use of “colored” to refer to Black people. But while that choice of words is offensive in 2020, Thomas said, even more offensive is the idea that Huffman conveyed.

“I was taken aback,” Thomas said. “He did not understand that for hundreds of years, Black people have been conceived by members of the white community as dirty, not clean, they are irresponsible and all these other things and he just played right into why we needed to have these hearings.”

Burke, the committee chairman, agreed they should go forward and said that Huffman shouldn’t be silenced. He said reconciliation of the country’s racial past is going to take a long time.

“But I don’t see how you’re ever going to start that process if you can’t converse,” Burke said.

He added that everybody is starting the process at their own level — including himself. Burke said several witnesses’ testimony helped him to understand the depth of distrust many in the African American community have for the police.

“They are raised and they raise their children in a certain way (in respect to) law enforcement,” he said. “They start off in a suppressed and defensive position. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Look down. Don’t reach for anything. These are things I never thought of.”

And that knowledge, Burke said, helped him appreciate the courage it took for an average Black citizen just to come testify.

“If criminal justice and police are your problem, driving two-and-a-half hours, trying to find a parking space, to walk into an old Supreme Court building, past the Highway Patrol, through a metal detector, into a room and stand at a podium by yourself and tell a group of pretty much white people your Black story,” he said. “Those people are freaking heroes. That’s the most unwelcoming environment you can have if police are your fear.”

Thomas, a former Cincinnati police officer who helped lead a court battle to diversify the force, said it was obvious to him that Huffman said what he did because that’s how he converses with his peers.

Huffman’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Thomas said that he encouraged his colleague to face the press and continue his work on the committee.

“I would respect him for coming back and saying, ‘I’m learning,’ and I think a lot of other people would respect that as well,” Thomas said. “If he expresses the sincere desire to learn about his own implicit bias, he can make life better for someone else.”

More broadly, Thomas said he wanted the committee and witnesses to freely express their ideas about race even if they might worry they’re biased.

“It’s an uncomfortable place to be to have a conversation about racism,” he said.

Burke and Thomas said this is a special moment to have a conversation about race and it’s vital to keep the fallout from Huffman’s comments from stopping it.

Burke said he wants to hold another hearing in Columbus and then go out into Ohio communities so people don’t have to drive all the way to Columbus and run a security gauntlet to tell their stories. Thomas said he wants to see legislative action while the urgency persists.

As the committee discusses race and bias, it’s unclear whether it will tackle an elephant in the room — President Donald Trump’s long history of racially charged words and gestures.

“I don’t know how it impacts this conversation,” Burke said.

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