Rep. Ayanna Pressley has teamed up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Rep. Barbara Lee to create The Anti-Racism and Public Health Act, which calls on the Centers for Disease Control to conduct research on the health effects of structual racism. It also calls on the fedeal government to declare racism a public health crisis, as many state and local governments have already done. GBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Pressley to learn more about the push for confronting racism across the nation. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: You're teaming with Sen. Warren on this piece of legislation. What would it accomplish?
Rep. Ayanna Pressley: Well, first and foremost, just acknowledgment of the fact that structural racism is a public health crisis. I represent the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District, which has been hardest hit by the pandemic, and that has everything to do with unequal access to health care and the co-morbidities of structural racism, resulting in higher rates of chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes and for the African-American, Latinx and indigenous community, higher rates of infant mortality [and] maternal mortality.
So this bill that I've introduced in partnership with Sen. Warren and Congresswoman Barbara Lee is The Anti-Racism and Public Health Act, and what it will accomplish is that it will create a National Center for Anti-Racism at the CDC to formally declare racism as a public health crisis. And might I add that several of the city councils in the Massachusetts 7th — Boston, Somerville [and] Cambridge — recently did declare racism as a public health emergency. So I'm taking it one step further on the federal level to create the center to provide the critical research needed to develop anti-racist health policy.
In addition to the National Center for Anti-Racism at the CDC, which our bill calls for, it would also establish a law enforcement violence prevention program at the CDC because police brutality is also a public health issue. In fact, police brutality ranks as the sixth leading cause of death among Black men. So our bill, ostensibly takes a public health approach to combating police brutality and violence by creating a dedicated law enforcement violence prevention program at the CDC. And I'm someone who's always believed that which gets measured gets done, so I think if we're really serious about ending systemic racism, then we have to invest in the policies and the research that's actively anti-racist. And our bill does exactly that.
Mathieu: Well, you touched on a lot of things there. With regard to health and co-morbidities, we are going into a fall and winter that even Dr. Anthony Fauci says we need to hunker down for. And people are worried, for obvious reasons, about a lot of things. When we're talking about health disparities, I'd like to ask you about going back to school. Here in Boston, schools and the teachers union have agreed to go all remote if the positive test rate moves beyond a certain threshold. Are you worried about this school year ahead?
Pressley: Absolutely. The safety and health of our children, our educators and our community really has to come first. These decisions to reopen have to be informed and driven by science and data. I did do a town hall — one of the most powerful I've ever done — called Student Speaks, where I heard directly from young people about their own challenges and concerns. And I've spoken with a number of educators and superintendents throughout my district. And based on those fears, I'm not surprised in the prioitization of the public health that Somerville, Chelsea, Boston and Everett, all cities in the Massachusetts 7th, again, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, have decided to begin their school year remotely.
I'm urging all my partners in government to track the data ... and to move with urgency. I've heard from so many educators — a teacher whose wife is expecting and he worries about putting her at risk. We've already asked so much of educators. We've asked them to be school nurses and therapists because we haven't made those investments throughout the years in social and emotional wellness support. Now we're asking them to be case workers. ... And might I add that the Senate will not pass the HEROES Act, which provides emergency aid to our K-12 schools to ensure that there is the PPE, the staffing levels [and] the classroom size. So without that emergency aid and without the science and data to support it, I don't see how it is safe to begin with full classroom, in-person learning.
Mathieu: We're having a little bit of trouble with your phone line, Congresswoman, but hopefully we'll be able to hang in there for another minute. I wanted to ask you as well about a report this week that found evidence of systemic racism in schools, the Appleseed Network. It found Black girls in Massachusetts specifically are nearly four times more likely than white girls to be disciplined in school [and] five times more likely to receive at least one out of school suspension. How do we confront these disparities in early education?
Pressley: Well, it's a new report, but not a new problem. I started working on that issue when I was on the Boston City Council, partnering with the National Black Women's Justice Initiative and the founder of that, Dr. Monique Moore, to do evidence-based research. And people might be surprised to learn that, actually, our proportionate rates of discipline, suspension and expulsion borne by Black girls is four times greater than their white peers in Massachusetts and is higher than even Alabama. The Department of Education has nine categories of discipline and Black girls dominate six of them. Just to be clear, this is not because Black girls are acting out more in school than their white peers, it's that for the same behavior, they are penalized and the response is more punitive for them. And sometimes they're missing classroom time simply for how they show up, based on how we wear our hair — how it grows out of our head. So I introduced a bill called the "Ending PUSHOUT Act" to combat the criminalization of Black and brown girls in our schools, to invest ... restorative justice practices, to ensure that our Black girls feel safe in these learning environments and that they can thrive.
Mathieu: Congresswoman, I'd like to ask you lastly, thousands of people in Massachusetts are unemployed right now; they've lost their jobs or they have been furloughed since the pandemic. Attempts at passing another stimulus have failed again in the Senate. Is there anything Congress can do to help?
Pressley: Well, I'm heading back to Washington. We'll be in legislative session for the next three weeks so that we can do that work. I see it up close and personal in my district every day. I'll tell you the things I'm fighting for: extended unemployment benefits, re-occurring cash payments, the cancelation of student debt to eliminate that bill, canceling our rent and mortgages, [and] moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures because we find ourselves on the precipice of an eviction tsunami. So these are all the things that I'll continue to fight because these are the things that the people that I represent so desperately need. There's just a tsunami of hurt there. Given these three crises — the pandemic, the economic hardship that it has wrought and then against the backdrop of this national reckoning on race to injustice — [it's] challenging times.