Ohio Lawmaker Asks Racist Question About Black People and Hand-Washing

An Ohio lawmaker asked at a hearing this week if the high rate of coronavirus cases among African-Americans was because “the colored population” did not wash their hands as well as other groups.

State Senator Stephen A. Huffman, a Republican and a doctor, made his remarks on Tuesday during a hearing of the Senate Health Committee about whether to declare racism a public health crisis. They came as he speculated about reasons black people might be more “susceptible” to Covid-19.

“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?” he said. “Could that be the explanation of why the higher incidence?”

A witness before the committee, Angela C. Dawson, the executive director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health, instantly pushed back on Mr. Huffman’s remarks. “That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country,” she told him, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others.

Mr. Huffman’s comments elicited immediate criticism. State Senator Hearcel F. Craig, a Democrat from Columbus and member of the Legislative Black Caucus, called the remarks an example of “systemic racism” at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected African-Americans.

“Senator Huffman also needs to understand why ‘colored’ is offensive,” he added. “Our nation has faced a painful segregationist history of ‘colored only’ restrooms and water fountains, just to cite two examples. These practices were reprehensible and so many fought to remove them from our culture.”

Mr. Huffman he apologized for his remarks in a statement on Thursday. “Regrettably, I asked a question in an unintentionally awkward way that was perceived as hurtful and was exactly the opposite of what I meant,” he said. “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.”

The Senate hearing on whether to declare racism a health crisis came amid widespread demonstrations against police violence and racism in Ohio, and across the country, since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Among Ohio’s 38,837 reported coronavirus cases as of Monday, 56.3 percent of patients are white and 27.3 percent are black, according to Cleveland.com, which cited the state health department. Ohio’s population is 82 percent white and 13 percent black. The death rate has more closely tracked the state’s population. Of the deaths in which race was reported, 78.8 percent were white, and 18 percent were black.

Since Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, first ordered a tight lockdown in Ohio to fight the pandemic, some Republicans in the Statehouse have fiercely criticized his pace for reopening, as well as the state health director, Dr. Amy Acton.

Dr. Acton resigned from that position on Thursday, but Mr. DeWine said she would continue to advise him.

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