During a discussion about why Covid-19 hospitalization and deaths rates have been higher among black Americans, Ohio state Senator Stephen Huffman (R) had a question. And it was a doozy.
He asked, “Could it just be that African Americans, or the colored population, do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear masks? Or do not socially distance themselves. Could that just be the explanation of why there’s a higher incidence?”
Yes, you read that correctly. Huffman was wondering whether black Americans do not wash their hands as well as others. Really? Skin color is somehow affecting hand washing? It’s not as if people walk up to a sink, look in the mirror, and say, “oh that’s right, maybe I shouldn’t spend that much time washing my hands?”
If you want to hear and see for yourself what he said, just watch the video accompanying this tweet:
Where and when did he say this? How about at a Ohio legislative committee hearing on June 9, where they were discussing, guess what, a proposed bill that would declare racism a public health crisis in Ohio.
Here is a news segment on some of these efforts:
Oh, another thing. Huffman happens to be an emergency room (ER) doctor. So he sees patients and tries to determine what led to their medical problems. Well, he was seeing patients for TeamHealth before the group apparently didn’t want him part of the team anymore:
As you can see, TeamHealth considered Huffman’s comments to be wholly inconsistent with their “values and commitment to creating a tolerant and diverse workplace.” The comments were also wholly inconsistent with science and evidence.
First of all, if you are about to say “[insert name of race or ethnicity] do not,” and plan on mentioning some type of behavior next, don’t. Stop right there and slowly move the foot away from your mouth.
Every race or ethnicity is tremendously diverse with a wide range of behaviors, backgrounds, experiences, thoughts, and ideas. Drawing conclusions about a person’s personality or behavior simply based on his or her race is an inadequate shortcut to actually getting to know that specific person. There’s only so much you can tell from a person’s appearance, except in the limited situations where something is obvious. For example, if someone keeps a muskrat on his or her head, then you may guess that he or she doesn’t dislike muskrats.
Secondly, such a statement seems like you are blaming people for getting an infectious disease. For example, after Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) tested positive for Covid-19, did Huffman wonder if Paul washed his hands as well as others? What about Ben McAdams (D-Utah) or celebrities Tom Hanks or Rita Wilson when they tested positive?
Washing your hands is simply one important way of preventing an infection. However, it doesn’t offer 100% protection. You could be the best hand-washer in the world, a six-time Gold Medalist in the hygiene Olympics, if they existed, and still get infected. The SARS-CoV2 is quite contagious. When people catch the virus, you can’t assume that they didn’t take the appropriate precautions like wash their hands.
Third, Huffman’s question overlooks what is really going on here. When infectious disease rates are higher among certain socio-demographic groups, it is usually because there are discrepancies in what these groups tend to face, not in who they tend to be. They may be less likely to get the jobs that keep them better protected from infection, like executive positions that allow them to do all their work via Zoom. They may be less likely to have surroundings that keep them safe, like a house in a posh gated community. They may be less likely to have access to good health care in settings that practice good infection control, like their own private physician in a quieter clinic. The list goes on and on.
On June 11, Huffman did post an apology on his Facebook page. It began with, “At a legislative committee hearing on Tuesday, I used an insensitive and offensive term while asking a question. I had absolutely no malicious intent, but I recognize that my choice of words was unacceptable and hurtful. I apologize, and I make no excuses. Those who know me will tell you that I have nothing but love and respect for all people, and I would never intentionally disrespect or denigrate anyone for any reason.”
He proceeded to emphasize that “My entire career has been spent as a medical doctor,” and “I’ve never seen the world through any other lens than healing and compassion.”
Did this apology really address the issues? Huffman’s question during the hearing wasn’t just using an “insensitive term” or making the wrong “choice of words.” Telling someone, “bro, your idea is wack,” could be insensitive. Saying “thank you for serving us that garbage pail stuff for dinner,” could be a wrong choice of words issue.
By contrast, it is a different matter to imply that an entire racial group may not wash their hands as well or has dirtier hands than others. It is a different matter to detract from the reality that black Americans and other minorities face additional challenges in this country that may affect their health. It is a different matter to suggest that racism is not a major public health problem.
Huffman’s apology wasn’t enough for those calling for his resignation from the State Senate as this ABC News report indicated:
Looks like Huffman may not be able to simply wash his hands of what he said, no matter how well he may wash his hands.
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