The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The racial ignorance of Virginia’s health czar

Dr. Colin Greene, Virginia health commissioner, at a session with the Board of Health on racial disparities in health outcomes on June 23. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Virginia’s top health official seems to have missed some of the voluminous research in recent decades demonstrating the link between racism and disparate health treatment and outcomes among African Americans. Actually, he seems to have missed virtually all of it.

After spending his first five months on the job dismissing, playing down and otherwise head-in-the-sanding structural racism’s role in health disparities, Virginia Health Commissioner Colin Greene now says: Oops.

Earlier this month Dr. Greene retracted recent remarks that left state health officials aghast and, by some of their accounts, traumatized. He did so only after his boss, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, in an apparent effort to calm the uproar, said he was disappointed Dr. Greene did not “effectively communicate our mission.” He has since been reprimanded by the state Board of Health.

In fact, Dr. Greene’s sin may be that he too literally communicated the mission Mr. Youngkin set for his administration. On his first day in office in January, in “Executive Order Number One,” the governor ordered the end of public school instruction in what he called “inherently divisive concepts.” He singled out critical race theory by name but made clear that a penumbra of race-related topics were off-limits. Dr. Greene seemed to be following the same playbook by trying to ban what he sees as similarly divisive concepts involving race and disparate health outcomes.

To many Republicans, any discussion of structural racism — assertions that U.S. society continues to contend with the legacies of slavery, segregation and bigotry — is inherently divisive. For his part, Dr. Greene contended that the word “racism” itself is “politically charged” and would only alienate White people — a stance that predates his current job. “If you say ‘racism,’ you’re blaming White people,” Dr. Greene said. “Enough of the world thinks that’s what you’re saying that you’ve lost a big piece of your audience.”

He elaborated on those views in meetings with state health officials under his supervision, for example by casting doubt on widely accepted research showing that racial inequity and disparate treatment have contributed to high rates of Black maternal and infant mortality. The very word “racism,” Dr. Greene told The Post in an interview, conjures for him “fire hoses, police dogs and Alabama sheriffs,” images from the mid-20th century civil rights strife. It is a risibly constricted understanding of racism.

Dr. Greene now expresses contrition for his remarks, if not overt apology, writing in a note that “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 expressed regret that his staff members “feel discounted or disrespected.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Greene, having displayed his own ignorance and myopia, is the wrong person to address problems he now acknowledges are deep, real — and rooted in racism.