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Mayor Lori Lightfoot Declares Racism A Public Health Crisis In Chicago; 'It Is Literally Killing Us'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday declared systemic racism a public health crisis in Chicago, saying disparities in access to effective and affordable health care, the impact of racism on the mental health of people of color, and the subsequent difference in life expectancy "is literally killing us."

"At almost every point in our city's history, sadly, racism has taken a devastating toll on the health and well-being of our residents of color, and particularly those who are Black," Lightfoot said. "Without formally acknowledging this history and reality, and the continuing impact of that infamous legacy, looking at the root causes of today's challenges, we will never be able to move forward as a city and fully provide our communities with the resources that we need to live happy, vibrant, and fulfilled lives."

The mayor made her announcement in the North Lawndale neighborhood, near the site of where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family lived for six months in 1966, joining a campaign against racist housing policies.

In declaring racism to be a public health crisis, Lightfoot joined several other cities around the nation that have made similar proclamations.

"When we think about racism, many of us think about it in visible and audible forms, but the reality is the insidious nature of systemic racism has other impacts that are every bit as deep and harmful, but often ones that we can't see, like the impacts on the psyche and other impacts on our bodies that are just as, if not more deadly," Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot, the city's first Black woman mayor and first openly lesbian mayor, noted her parents grew up in the segregated Deep South, and both had dreams that were never realized, largely due to racist attitudes in the 1920s. She said her mother wanted to be a nurse, and her father wanted to be a lawyer.

"My parents, like so many others of their generation and other generations were indoctrinated to believe that they could never, ever be able to reach for and accomplish their dreams. This was and still is the case for far too many Black residents and residents of color in our city, and ladies and gentlemen, it is literally killing us here in Chicago," she said.

The mayor said, over the past 15 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored racial health disparities in Chicago.

"COVID laid bare a lot of disparities. When we started looking at the disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color in particular, there's a straight line to the lack of access to safe, affordable, high-quality healthcare," she said.

According to Lightfoot, COVID-19 death rates among Black residents are more than double those of White residents, and the Latinx death rate exceeds the White death rate by 76%.

A recent report by the Chicago Department of Public Health revealed the life expectancy rate among Black Chicagoans is 9.2 years shorter than non-Black residents. Lightfoot said that gap has only increased over the past decade.

"Those sobering statistics stem from disproportionate rates of chronic diseases born of historic disparities in medical treatment, safe spaces to exercise, access to nutritious food, the overrepresentation of Black and Latinx residents in low-wage and frontline workforces where health care benefits are non-existent in many instances, where employees often work in close proximity to each other and are less able to take paid time off when they are sick. And the list goes on and on," Lightfoot said. "We can no longer allow racism to rob our residents of the opportunity to live and lead full, happy, and healthy lives."

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the death rate from diabetes among Blacks is 70% higher than non-Blacks in Chicago; the homicide rate among Blacks in Chicago is nine times higher than among non-blacks; Black infants are nearly three times as likely to die as non-Black infants; Black people account for half of the city's residents living with HIV; and opiod-related overdose deaths among Blacks is more than three times the rate among non-Blacks.

"There is nothing natural about these statistics. They are unjust and they are preventable," she said.

Arwady announced the city will allocate $9.6 million in COVID-19 relief funds from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish Healthy Chicago Equity Zones; six geographic areas covering the entire city.

Community groups in each of those six areas of the city will lead efforts to come up with targeted strategies to improve community wellness. City officials have chosen six organizations to lead those efforts in each of the six Healthy Chicago Equity Zones:

  • Phalanx Family Services in the Far South zone
  • Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation in the Near South zone
  • Swedish Covenant Hospital in the North/Central zone
  • Northwest Side Housing Center in the Northwest zone
  • Southwest Organizing Project in the Southwest zone
  • Rush University Medical Center on behalf of West Side United in the West zone

Ayesha Jaco, executive director of West Side United, said the goal is to decrease the life expectancy gap between the Loop and West Side -- which currently stands at 14 years -- by half by 2030.

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