Annapolis’ Del. Shaneka Henson wants racism to be recognized as a public health barrier and is pleading with Congress to implement more supports for her constituents and all Black Americans.
The effort she says will rehabilitate the impacts of racism includes making Social Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance available to African Americans regardless of age, disability or impairment, because, she said, “racial discrimination must be acknowledged for what it is – disabling.”
The 28 policy changes are necessary, Henson said, to rehabilitate the injuries of racial discrimination.
“America’s commitment to treating and rehabilitating the effects of disability has proven effective,” Henson said. “If the disability entitlement system were to acknowledge the injuries of racism, America could finally begin a path toward rehabilitation.”
Henson has sent her proposal to Maryland’s Congressional delegation and hopes to have the opportunity to speak to them directly about her ideas and find someone who will be willing to spearhead the legislation at the federal level.
The policy recommendations come as Anne Arundel County and the whole country is grappling with systemic racism following a spate of law enforcement killings of Black Americans.
Anne Arundel County started addressing racism as a public health issue in November after a Maryland State Police report concluded that there were more incidents of hate crimes and bias incidents in the county than anywhere else in the state.
Recently, after the national uprising surrounding George Floyd’s killing by white police officers, county leaders added body-worn cameras for police into the budget at the request of Black community leaders including NAACP President Jacqueline Boone Allsup and Caucus of African American Leaders Convener Carl Snowden.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat, said he appreciated Henson’s detailed thoughts on the topic of systemic racism, but did not explicitly say whether he would sponsor or support related legislation.
He cited his work in the Senate Finance Committee to reduce racial and socioeconomic inequality and said he would continue fighting for policies that ensure equity, including increased funding for social and mental health services.
“We must acknowledge that racism is a systemic problem that has been deeply integrated into many government programs and services and commit to addressing racial inequities and disparities in our everyday work,” Cardin said in a statement. “I continue to work with my colleagues on this and remain committed to supporting and developing policies that make real, systemic change for racial minorities and other disadvantaged groups who have been marginalized and neglected by society.”
Henson said she was inspired to consider how racism could be addressed through a public health lens after a Johns Hopkins Medicine Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Sherita Golden presented on racial health disparities to Henson’s House committee in June. Once she understood the physical impacts that are caused by racial discrimination, she said she knew exactly how she wanted to approach the issue.
In her report, Henson cited several studies published by the National Institute of Health which show the increased risks and worse medical conditions associated with the impacts of racial discrimination.
Henson said she doesn’t want to be part of a generation that only magnifies the injustices — she wants to be part of the solution.
“When I look at how Black people are suffering across the country, how young people are coming together and demanding change, I feel like we cannot fall short,” Henson said. “This is a measure of justice. This is a way to bring about change.”
She recommends making all African Americans over the age of 22 eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance, regardless of age, impairment or disability. For African Americans, the ability to work requirements would be removed and the law would be amended so that the program could act as a supplement for working or disabled people.
Social Security Income, Medicaid and Medicare would all be amended in similar ways— becoming available to African Americans who would not otherwise be eligible for the benefits.
Henson also addresses housing — African Americans would be eligible for disability-related housing vouchers, subsidized housing, rental assistance and public housing regardless of medical evaluation. Her plan also provides pathways to homeownership, by making African Americans eligible for the Housing Choice Voucher homeownership program regardless of disability or medical evaluation.
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Other recommendations address emergency preparedness supports, hiring practices, education, access to internet and technology, and the criminal justice system.
The recommendations are forward-looking, she said. They will provide supports for the racism Black people are experiencing now and in the future. It’s not a silver bullet for addressing the country’s history of slavery, she said. It does nothing to make the descendants of enslaved people whole again, she said.
“I think it’s a far cry from reparations (because) this doesn’t look at the lens of history,” Henson said. “It certainly would fall short of righting a historical wrong. That work would still need to be done.”
Still, local NAACP President Jacqueline Boone Allsup said she thinks the “extensive” report and policy proposals are long overdue.
“There are disparities in income, health, education,” Allsup said. “It is really long overdue because racism is systemic within this nation and it has impacted Black and brown people in all areas for a very long time.”