Va. public health chief rejects role race can play in treatment, questions ‘blaming white people’ for disparities

Colin Greene has downplayed the state-recognized link between structural racism and Black maternal mortality.

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The roots of American racism are deeply embedded in the nation’s healthcare system, with more than 200 state and local government entities declaring it a public health crisis. 

Yet, Virginia’s chief public health officer disagrees. the Washington Post reports that Colin Greene has downplayed the state-recognized link between structural racism and health disparities. In fact, he wholeheartedly rejects the word “racism” because he views it as an attack against white people. 

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“If you say ‘racism,’ you’re blaming White people,” Greene told the Post. “Enough of the world thinks that’s what you’re saying that you’ve lost a big piece of your audience. The fact that there are people teaching about Whiteness in schools in a very negative way doesn’t help.”

Some believe Greene’s stance is problematic, to say the least. “You take away racism and we really don’t have to consider what it means and the people who suffered because of it,” said Jatia Wrighten, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “That is dangerous but also effective for someone with his type of power.”

Despite the Commonwealth of Virginia and the city of Richmond acknowledging that structural racism exists, Greene seemingly refuses to address the policies and systems within the state that perpetuate health inequities.

“To not address it is a dereliction of duty for those of us who are committed to not just public health, but health care, specifically,” Greene’s predecessor, M. Norman Oliver, said recently, according to the Post.

Even the governor who appointed Greene told the Richmond-Times Dispatch that he was “disappointed” with Green’s approach to the job. “Virginians must share the common objective to close maternal health gaps, reduce health disparities, and deliver on behalf of all women in the commonwealth,” said Gov. Glenn Youngkin. 

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Youngkin also noted that he is “outraged” by the gap in maternal deaths between Black and white women, which “hasn’t materially improved in a generation.”  

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who almost died during a pregnancy, noted in her interview with the Dispatch that the disparities are backed up by science. “The studies bear out, the data bears out, that Black women disproportionately die within the first year of birth and it shows you the reason for it,” she asserted. “If you have a director of health who is undermining the very work being done to address these disparities, they’ll never end.”

Greene reportedly said in a staff meeting that he has yet to see compelling evidence linking racism to high rates of Black maternal mortality. The Post reported that he intends to create an investigative unit within the department of health to uncover the reasons for the grim health outcomes for Black mothers and their babies. 

Asked by the Post if racism is the underlining cause of these disparities, Greene was guarded in his response. “I don’t know that for sure. I will say that intuitively, in my gut, I suspect that it is,” he said.

“If you’re going to be intellectually honest, you don’t start with that assumption, you start with no assumptions and then you go back and look at causes and that’s what I want everyone to do. I want to start fresh on this.”

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