Watch CBS News

Ohio GOP lawmaker asks if "the colored population" gets coronavirus because they "do not wash their hands as well as other groups"

Coronavirus reveals racial health gap in U.S.
Coronavirus reveals racial health gap in U.S.... 08:58

During a hearing in the Ohio statehouse on Tuesday, Republican state Senator Steve Huffman asked if "the colored population" is hit harder by the coronavirus because "they do not wash their hands as well as other groups." Huffman, who is a physician, raised the question during a health committee hearing on whether to declare racism a public health crisis. 

"My point is, I understand African Americans have a higher incidence of chronic conditions and it makes them more susceptible to death from COVID," Huffman said. "But why it doesn't make them more susceptible to just get COVID? 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? That could be the explanation of the higher incidence?" 

Angela Dawson, director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health, who was testifying during the hearing, responded firmly, "That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country." 

The audience cringed when Huffman made his remark, state Senator Cecil Thomas told the Dayton Daily News. "He's an example of why we have to have this discussion about racism and how it impacts people," said Thomas, who serves on the Senate Health Committee.

Huffman later tried to explain his comment. In a statement provided to CBS News, he said, "Regrettably, I asked a question in an unintentionally awkward way that was perceived as hurtful and was exactly the opposite of what I meant. 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."

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected African American people across the U.S., and experts have cited an array of possible reasons, including lack of equal access to medical care, higher rates of preexisting conditions like diabetes and heart disease, and jobs in essential services that may expose them to greater risk.

The Ohio Department of Public Health reported in May that African Americans, who make up 14% of the state's population, represent 26% of positive COVID-19 cases, 31% of COVID-19 hospitalizations, and 17% percent of deaths from the disease.

In an interview with the Dayton Daily News, Ohio Legislative Black Caucus President Stephanie Howse called out Huffman's comments about the black community. "He highlights what racism is from a systematic perspective. He's a full legislator but beyond that, professionally, he's a doctor," Howse said. 

"When we talk about the health disparities that happen because black folks aren't believed when they're actually hurt, they aren't given the treatment that they need. Do you think that someone who acknowledges the 'coloreds' is going to give the love and care that people need when they come through those doors?" she continued. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.