GOP lawmaker suggests black Americans are to blame for being hit hard by virus

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State Sen. Steve Huffman's question 'reflects how unconscious this problem of racism is for too many.'

A white Ohio state senator suggested during a hearing on Tuesday that people of color might be to blame for higher rates of COVID-19 through poor hygiene.

Republican State Sen. Steve Huffman, a emergency department physician, used a racist term in his question for Angela Dawson, the executive director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health.

"I understand African Americans have a higher incidence of chronic conditions and that makes them more susceptible to death from COVID. But why — it does not make them more susceptible to just get COVID," Huffman said. "We know it's twice as often, correct? Could it just be that African Americans — the colored population — do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear a mask? Or do not socially distance themselves? Could that, that could just be maybe the explanation of why the higher incidence?"

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Dawson, who is black, answered, "That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country."

The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus released a statement Thursday responding to Huffman, noting, "Historically, the world 'colored' is associated with segregation and Jim Crow laws and is almost universally considered offensive in 2020.

"Additionally, the unfounded idea that 'Black people are dirty' has long been used as a racist stereotype in the United States to justify centuries of white superiority and Black oppression."

The caucus' president, Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Howse, said in the statement: "The fact that a well-educated legislator, a Vice Chair of the Health Committee and a practicing medical doctor would, in a public setting, nonchalantly use such antiquated terminology paired with a hurtful, racist stereotype all in one breath reflects how unconscious this problem of racism is for too many."

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the black community disproportionately hard. Last month, a study found that 50.3 African Americans have died of causes related to the coronavirus per 100,000 people, compared to 20.7 whites, 22.9 Latinos, and 22.7 Asian Americans.

An NPR analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project in May found that African-Americans die of the disease at rate nearly two times greater that expected based on their share of the population. A report released in April by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that data suggest "an overrepresentation of blacks among hospitalized patients."

After coming under fire for his comments, Huffman told the Columbus Dispatch, "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."

Other Republicans have used racist language in discussing the coronavirus. Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted on calling it the "Chinese virus" even after public health experts warned that doing so can result in increased stigmatization of and hates crimes against Asian and Asian-Americans. On Wednesday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) launched a new ad claiming, "China's lies spread the China virus across the world."

Huffman has been the subject of controversy before.

In December of last year, the Washington Post reported that he wrote an opinion piece against "Medicare for All" "with the help" of a lobbyist for the health care industry. His column, which ran in September in a local Ohio newspaper, did not disclose the lobbyist's assistance.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.