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Whitmer signs order calling racism a public health crisis

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Wednesday an order declaring racism a public health crisis and creating the Black Leadership Advisory Council to "elevate Black voices."

The executive directive asks the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to have all state employees undergo implicit bias training for employees and "make health equity a major goal."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.

People applying to the leadership council must do so by Aug. 19. 

“We must confront systemic racism head on so we can create a more equitable and just Michigan," Whitmer said in a statement. "This is not about one party or person. I hope we can continue to work towards building a more inclusive and unbiased state that works for everyone.” 

Early in the virus' path through Michigan, the virus has hurt the Black community more than other communities, and the trend has held true through the summer. 

African-American individuals have made up about 27% of the confirmed cases in Michigan and 39% of the deaths, despite making up 14% of the state's population, according to state data. 

In April, Whitmer appointed the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist to study the issue of racial disparity. 

While the virus has been challenging for all state residents, “they have been especially tough for Black and Brown people who for generations have battled the harms caused by a system steeped in persistent inequalities," Gilchrist said.

"These are the same inequities that have motivated so many Americans of every background to confront the legacy of systemic racism that has been a stain on our state and nation from the beginning," he said.

Whitmer's Wednesday executive order would task the council with reviewing state laws that perpetuate inequities, promoting legislation seeking "to remedy structural inequities," providing advice to community groups seeking to benefit the Black community and promoting cultural arts in the African-American community. 

The task force will consist of 16 members and will fall under the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. 

"We are blessed to have a governor who is willing to hear us, march with us and use her office to build a better, more equal world." Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley said. 

Whitmer's separate directive to the state health department requires it to review data and find ways to advocate for communities of color. Data on health disparities among Black people should be analyzed and made available.

The directive requires all existing state employees to complete implicit bias training and new hires to do so within 60 days. 

The department will use an Equity Impact Assessment tool to guide state officials through the potential implications their decisions may have on minorities, according to Whitmer's office. 

The governor's remarks come a day after the state of Michigan upped its tally of confirmed cases to 84,050 and its count of deaths related to the virus to 6,220. Hospitalizations linked to the virus have remained relatively low despite upward trends in cases since June. 

"Overall we are seeing a plateau in cases after a slight uptick in June and July," Khaldun said. 

The Detroit, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo regions have a little more than 40 cases per million people per day, the Jackson and Upper Peninsula regions about 35 cases per million people per day and the Saginaw and Lansing regions have just under 30 cases per million people per day, the chief medical executive said.  

All of those regions, with the exception of Lansing, have seen decreasing daily case averages over the last weeks, Khaldun said. 

The Traverse City region, which recently came under stricter rules by Whitmer, is averaging about 10 cases per million people per day, she said. 

The state considers daily case incidences that rise above 20 cases per million people per day to be cause for concern, while a safer level is one that stays below 10 cases per million people per day. 

"These are all good signs and we will continue to monitor these metrics," Khaldun said. But "these plateauing trends are not reason to let our guard down."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com