Virginia health chief backtracks, says he regrets minimizing the role of racism in public health

Public officials now question whether Health Commissioner Dr. Colin Greene is fit for the office he took just months ago.

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The Virginia health commissioner sparked outrage and condemnation when he rejected the role systemic racism plays in public health. As officials in the state and elsewhere now question whether he is fit for office, Dr. Colin Greene has walked back his remarks. 

“I am fully aware that racism at many levels is a factor in a wide range of public health outcomes and disparities across the Commonwealth and the United States,” he wrote in a staff-wide note late on Friday, The Washington Post reported. “I also deeply regret that any of this has caused you to feel discounted or disrespected; such has never and will never be my intent.”

In a Friday staff message, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Colin M. Greene walked back some questionable views on the role of racism in public health, according to reports. (Photo: Virginia Department of Health)

As reported previously by theGrio,  Greene downplayed the state-recognized link between structural racism and health disparities. The report notes that he wholeheartedly rejects the word “racism” because he views it as an attack against white people and thinks such language alienates them from conversations about health disparities such as Black maternal mortality.

More than 200 state and local government entities have declared racism a public health crisis, yet Greene seemingly disagrees. In an article published last week in The Washington Post, he is quoted as saying, “America’s been dealing with racism as long as I’ve been alive, and it’ll continue dealing with it after I’m gone, I suspect, so it’s not a crisis.”

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.”

Greene’s flip-flop on the issue came a day after Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin 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 Youngkin, a Republican. 

Greene is a retired Army colonel and Youngkin appointee who took office just five months ago. He has since “clashed with his own experts on racial disparities and agency scientists over coronavirus restrictions,” per the report.  The governor noted in a statement that Greene has not “effectively” communicated “our mission.”

Several public health organizations in Virginia denounced Greene’s views in a letter that states, in part: “The views espoused by Dr. Greene show a stubborn refusal to reflect and learn even when presented with facts and opportunities for growth. The individual leading Virginia’s public health efforts cannot hold these dismissive and harmful views and have any hope of meeting the unique health needs of every Virginia family.”

Greene’s views have reportedly created tension among his staff, with those holding contrasting views feeling demoralized, traumatized and fearful for their jobs, per the report. 

State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan said Greene’s note is “gaslighting.”

“Based on my conversations with employees at the Department of Health,” said the Richmond Democrat, “this has had a chilling effect on their ability to do their job to address health disparities.”

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