COLUMBUS, Ohio – During a hearing Tuesday on whether to declare racism a public health crisis in Ohio, a Republican state senator referred to "the colored population" and questioned whether African Americans get COVID-19 more often because they do not wash their hands as much.
"Could it just be that African Americans – the colored population – do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear a mask? Or do not socially distance themselves? Could that just be maybe the explanation of why there’s a higher incidence?" said state Sen. Steve Huffman of Tipp City, north of Dayton.
The word "colored" is associated with segregation and Jim Crow laws, and it is almost universally considered offensive in 2020, noted Rep. Stephanie Howse, a Cleveland Democrat who is president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. She added that the stereotype that "black people are dirty" has been used in the U.S. to justify centuries of white superiority and black oppression.
"When we talk about the internalized racism that is deeply ingrained in our institutions and the obstacles black Americans face in ever achieving meaningful change, this is exactly what we are talking about," Howse said in a statement early Thursday morning.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley called the comment "racist and unacceptable."
Huffman later issued an apology.
"Regrettably, I asked a question in an unintentionally awkward way that was perceived as hurtful and was exactly the opposite of what I meant. I was trying to focus on why COVID-19 affects people of color at a higher rate, since we really do not know all the reasons," Huffman said.
Huffman made the remarks about African Americans and COVID-19 during a discussion with Angela Dawson, director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health. Dawson, who is black, replied, "That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country."
Howse said it was especially concerning that Huffman, a doctor, would use such language.
"The fact that a well-educated legislator – a Vice Chair of the Health Committee and a practicing medical doctor – would, in a public setting, nonchalantly use such antiquated terminology paired with a hurtful, racist stereotype all in one breath reflects how unconscious this problem of racism is for too many," she said.
The Legislative Black Caucus is calling on legislators and staff to immediately take racial equity and implicit bias training.
John Fortney, a spokesman for Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said, “I know the president addressed it by speaking with Senator Huffman and also talked with committee members.”
Fortney noted the Senate will be holding a "listening tour" across the state on racial issues, starting this month.
Former Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges defended Huffman.
"Everyone can evaluate the situation for themselves, but knowing Senator Huffman, there is zero doubt in my mind that he made a mistake, and that his contrition and apology are genuine," he said in a tweet.