Opinion | Virginia health commissioner wakes up to structural racism in disparities

Opinion | Virginia health commissioner wakes up to structural racism in disparities

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Earlier this month Dr. Greene retracted recent remarks that left state health officials aghast and, by some of their accounts, traumatized. He did so only after his boss, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, in an apparent effort to calm the uproar, said he was disappointed Dr. Greene did not “effectively communicate our mission.” He has since been reprimanded by the state Board of Health.

In fact, Dr. Greene’s sin may be that he too literally communicated the mission Mr. Youngkin set for his administration. On his first day in office in January, in “Executive Order Number One,” the governor ordered the end of public school instruction in what he called “inherently divisive concepts.” He singled out critical race theory by name, but made clear that a number of race-related topics were off-limits. Dr. Greene seemed to be following the same playbook by trying to ban what he sees as similarly divisive concepts involving race and disparate health outcomes.

To many Republicans, any discussion of structural racism — assertions that U.S. society continues to contend with the legacies of slavery, segregation and bigotry — is inherently divisive. For his part, Dr. Greene contended that the word “racism” itself is “politically charged” and would only alienate White people — a stance that predates his current job. “If you say ‘racism,’ you’re blaming White people,” Dr. Greene said. “Enough of the world thinks that’s what you’re saying that you’ve lost a big piece of your audience.”

He elaborated on those views in meetings with state health officials under his supervision, for example by casting doubt on widely accepted research showing that racial inequity and disparate treatment have contributed to high rates of Black maternal and infant mortality. The very word “racism,” Dr. Greene told The Post in an interview, conjures for him “fire hoses, police dogs and Alabama sheriffs,” images from the mid-20th century civil rights strife. It is a risibly constricted understanding of racism.

Dr. Greene now expresses contrition for his remarks, if not overt apology, writing in a note that “I am fully aware that racism at many levels is a factor in a wide range of public health outcomes and disparities across the Commonwealth and the United States.” He expressed regret that his staff members “feel discounted or disrespected.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Greene, having displayed his own ignorance and myopia, is the wrong person to address problems he now acknowledges are deep, real — and rooted in racism.

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