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Connecting the Dots is Ideastream Public Media's ongoing project to highlight connections between race and health. The initiative is currently focused on the gun violence plaguing many Northeast Ohio neighborhoods.

Cleveland Mayoral Candidates Agree Racism Is A Public Health Crisis

Steve Robinson is a Cleveland voter from the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood. Robinson said he will likely vote to choose the next mayor of Cleveland. Health issues like the pandemic are on his mind, and the health impacts where he lives. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]
Steve Robinson is a Cleveland voter from the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood. Robinson said he will likely vote to choose the next mayor of Cleveland. Health issues like the pandemic are on his mind, and the health impacts where he lives. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]

Ideastream Public Media’s health team is connecting the dots on how racism contributes to poor health outcomes in the Cleveland area. As government and health agencies have declared racism is a public health crisis, we spoke to the candidates for Mayor of Cleveland to find out, if elected, how they plan to target structural barriers at the root of health inequities. 

Outside of mayoral candidate Zack Reed’s campaign headquarters, Steve Robinson and his friends hang out and try to make some extra money washing cars at a nearby car wash.

They’ve seen Reed canvassing the area, campaigning for mayor, but Robinson isn’t sure who he will vote for in the mayor’s race yet.

“Once I do the proper research and I make my decision, I think I probably will vote,” he said.

The mayoral candidates have all made it clear that addressing the ways racism affects health outcomes is a top priority if elected. One candidate, Ward 7 Councilman Basheer Jones, is even on City Council’s working group to address racism as a public health crisis.

“To be totally honest, I’ve been in this area all my life, and I don’t think it’s affected me,” Robinson said, when I asked him if he cares about addressing racism as a public health crisis.

“(Racism is) not as bad as it used to be, but it’s still a problem,” he said.

But racism and the ways it impacts health aren’t always obvious. Structural racism led to redlining, and lower rates of homeownership for Black residents. It’s also impacted education, the economy, and the criminal justice system.

Robinson said he has seen the ways that his health can be impacted by where he lives.

“It’s every day stress and strain,” he said. “You have so many entities you have to defend yourself against: crime, drugs, even the law sometimes.”

“By not owning a vehicle, I can’t remove myself from the area or the situation, like travel, take a break, catch my breath, I just have to remain in the struggle. Hope it doesn’t kill me,” Robinson said.

Addressing Health Through Public Safety

Reed said he plans to address public health through addressing gun violence and criminal justice issues.

“For the past 10 years, 100 people have been killed, which means a thousand people have been killed here in the city of Cleveland,” Reed said. “Now, if a thousand people were killed in the city of Cleveland due to an infectious disease, or a cancer, in certain neighborhoods, we’d try to find out, what is the cause of that disease, what is killing those young, Black men before their 25 th birthday? This is a health issue. Young, Black men should not be dying before their 25 th birthday.”

Reed said he’d also fund Council’s working group, which some have criticized as not producing actionable results.

But another candidate, Council President Kevin Kelley, said the working group can’t be expected to produce results within one year.

“This is a 402-year-old problem right now. This is not something the committee will solve immediately,” he said.

Addressing Health Through The Economy

Kelley plans to look at public health through a community development lens. He said access to fresh food, living within walking distance of a park, and a feeling of safety in your home or community will both create healthier Clevelanders and also stronger neighborhoods.

“Community development is not just bricks and mortar, it’s not just business development, it’s not just housing,” Kelley said. “We believe community development is part of public health.”

Candidate Ross DiBello also sees public health through a financial lens. For-profit lending can lead to fewer people being able to buy homes and stay in them, he said, which is why he wants to open a public bank.

“We want to encourage not-predatory loans and mortgage lending,” DiBello said. “We want to give people the nest eggs that they need to further themselves and their neighbors and create an economy that works city-wide, within these borders.”

Councilman Basheer Jones said the city needs to be viewed like a business, and as such, he plans to address racism through workplace training for government employees.

“The mayor is in charge of an almost $2 billion corporation,” he said. “The problem is when there’s a system that protects those who are actualizing their implicit biases in their workforce and their workplace. The problem is that the systems seem to be protecting those who are racist.”

Addressing Health Through Racial Health Disparities

Cuyahoga County has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the country, about three times higher than the national average. And it’s one of the ways health inequity is more visible, because fewer Black babies make it to their first birthday than white babies.

“Mothers need help to make sure their babies, when they’re delivered, will have the full range of services available to make sure the child can survive and be able to thrive,” candidate and former Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich said.

He plans to have the city’s health department prioritize infant mortality if he’s elected.

Candidate and State Sen. Sandra Williams also plans to address infant mortality and the lead crisis.

National Institutes of Health research shows that Black children in the United States have higher blood lead levels than white children.

Williams plans to give $17 million to lead abatement efforts to address the lead crisis in Cleveland.

“We still have hundreds of thousands of houses that currently have lead in them, and our children are being poisoned by that lead on a daily basis,” she said. “The organizations that are working to address the lead issue need $99.4 million… They’ve already raised $49 million, and they’re asking the city to put in $17 million.”

She said the rest of the money will come from donations from philanthropists and the community, and giving city money will help the organizations reach their goal.

Kucinich said he plans to also build thousands of homes all over Cleveland, which will help address lead poisoning and also make homeownership more affordable for residents.

Another candidate Justin Bibb said every policy will be viewed through a racial equity lens if he is elected.

“Whether it’s environmental justice to ensuring every neighborhood has access to affordable transit, access to a grocery store that sells fresh fruits and vegetables, access to a public park that’s safe and secure and well lit, all those things have impacts on people of color all across our city, and we see the disparity,” he said.

Bibb plans to create a racial equity officer in his cabinet. That person will look at all of the city’s actions through a racial equity lens to make sure they are breaking down systemic racism in Cleveland.

Racism impacts health outcomes in so many different ways, and some of the candidates focused on those issues: public safety, the economy, housing, schools, and access to health care.

All of the candidates had different approaches to addressing racism as a public health crisis, but they all recognized that racism does impact health, and whoever wins, this issue will likely remain a priority for the next four years.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158