Rev. A.J. Johnson, an organizer with the Center for Leadership and Justice, speaks at a rally in front of Hartford City Hall following a march organized by the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance (GHIAA) to demand police accountability and transparency in response to the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

The 2020 DataHaven Community Wellbeing Survey confirmed that death rates, job loss/reduction, food insecurity and financial hardships due to COVID-19 were higher for Black and Latino respondents than their white counterparts.  As a pastor in Hartford’s North End neighborhood, the survey put statistics to what my community was experiencing – or put differently – trying to survive.

With input from prominent community leaders of color and backing of the 38 congregations of the multiracial Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance (GHIAA), we sent Gov. Ned Lamont a letter dated June 15, 2020, asking to meet with him around urgently declaring racism a public health crisis in Connecticut.  To date, we have not gotten a response from him to this request.

When the above-mentioned survey uncovered that only 38% of Black adults responded that they would get vaccinated (in comparison to 67% of white adults), Gov. Lamont’s response set off a firestorm of criticism.  At the September 8, 2020 COVID-19 news briefing, he declared, “I’ve got to do a better job of education, do work with the churches, everything I can to give people confidence…”  Many Black political and religious leaders rebuffed the notion of using the Black church to do the state’s bidding.

Given the historical memory of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, non-consensual sterilization of women of color eugenics project of the 20th Century, and the ways that present-day racism negatively affects healthcare for people of color, regaining the Black community’s trust in the medical field would take more than a Sunday church visit or savvy communications strategy.  It takes commitment and trust.  It takes RELATIONSHIP!

At this point, Governor Lamont refuses to be in a relationship with clergy and community leaders of color despite wanting to use us as he sees fit. He refuses to listen to our on the ground, in the trenches of wisdom.  He refuses to allow us to be at the table helping to clarify needs and shape solutions for our own communities.

We have sent the Governor multiple correspondence and even held a press conference to get his attention on this pressing issue.  Again, we are reaching out to the Governor to ask him to take action by declaring racism as a public health crisis.  This strategy goes beyond merely pushing people of color to get the COVID-19 vaccine; instead, it shows initiative to tackle racism head-on and in earnest collaboration. It also has the potential to build trust when followed with deliberate actions to address systemic racism.

To move this crucial issue forward, we are collaborating with YWCA of the Greater Hartford Region, Health Equity Solutions and the Delta Pi Sigma Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. we are  supporting Senate Bill No.55 proposed by Sen. Saud Anwar to designate racism as a public health crisis in the state and establish a commission to study the impact of institutional racism on public health.

As the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and institutional racism continue to rage, it is important that leadership at the top take decisive action.  If you are reading this, Governor Lamont, we welcome you at the table. Will you welcome us?

Rev. AJ Johnson is Senior Pastor of the Urban Hope Refuge Church.<

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