Chicago Mayor Declares Racism a Health Crisis, Citing Life Expectancy Gap, as City Pledges $10M to Solutions

The city's health department will reportedly use $9.6 million in COVID-19 relief funding to create six "Healthy Chicago Equity Zones"

Chicago's mayor has embarked on a media tour in recent days to make what she hopes is a city-altering declaration: Describing racism as a public health crisis.

"I think one of the big narratives coming out of the pandemic is that the cost and consequences of inequities and injustice simply can no longer be ignored," Lori Lightfoot told MSNBC's Jonathan Capehart on Sunday.

"We've known that racism is a public health crisis, but I think naming it and saying it gives us an opportunity to address it once and for all," Lightfoot, 58, said.

She cited Chicago's 9.2-year gap in life expectancy between its Black and non-Black residents as well as a lack of access to high-quality healthcare for minority groups across the city.

She also pointed to what she called "root causes" of gun violence, such as racism and systemic poverty.

"Naming it and making it an official declaration of the city gives us the opportunity to have the conversation on the table and start addressing the root causes," Lightfoot said.

"We will never get beyond this if we don't plant the seeds now for the long-term problems," she said. "We've got to get to the root causes so we can turn the page on this violence."

Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty

Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first openly gay person to be mayor of Chicago, first made her declaration at a news conference on Thursday.

"My mother wanted to be a nurse. My father wanted to be a lawyer," she said then, according to The Chicago Sun-Times. "But because they were Black and Black success was considered [not just] an anomaly, but worse, a threat, and became a target for retaliation, my parents — like so many others of their generation and other generations — were indoctrinated to believe that they would 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," she told reporters. "And ladies and gentlemen, it is literally killing us."

Lightfoot's announcement came after the city's public health department released a post-COVID-19 report that highlighted the growing life expectancy gap between Black and non-Black residents, according to local TV station WLS.

The report found a 9.2-year gap between those groups, while life expectancies were also falling for the city's Latino and Asian American communities.

Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty

To address the issue, Chicago's health department will use $9.6 million of its COVID-19 relief funding to create six "Healthy Chicago Equity Zones," WLS reported.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city will partner with community organizations focusing on improving "health care and social services access, food access, housing conditions, community safety, and the physical and built neighborhood environments."

The Sun-Times reported that Chicago, the country's third-largest city, is not the first municipality to break this ground: Milwaukee County in Wisconsin declared racism a public health crisis in 2019, while Boston, Denver and Columbus, Ohio, have all taken similar stances in recent years.

According to the newspaper, Lightfoot said last week that "80 percent of health outcomes are due to social factors, including housing, safety, education, economic opportunity — every single one of which have, through our history as a nation, been impacted by systemic racism."

"That's why we're making this declaration today," she said. "Because we can no longer allow racism to rob our residents of the opportunity to live and lead full, healthy and happy lives."

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