Republican State Senator Steve Huffman of Tipp City, Ohio attracted the ire of his constituents after asking in a public hearing if "the colored population" contracts the virus behind the global pandemic at a higher rate because maybe they wash their hands less often.
The hearing to help determine whether racism is a public health crisis in Ohio, was held on Tuesday, June 9.
Huffman seized the opportunity to ask a question which many claim has multiple racist overtones.
"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?"
Democratic Representative Stephanie Howse, President of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, noted that the term "colored" is regarded as offensive by almost everyone in 2020.
The term is a holdover from the Jim Crow era when "colored" people were segregated in almost all aspects of their lives.
Businesses often had White entrances, waiting rooms, bathrooms and water fountains while others—often at the back or of lesser quality—were designated for "colored" people.
Even more notably, Howse pointed out that the contents of Huffman's question reinforced the stereotype that "black people are dirty," which racists have used to justify their poor treatment for generations.
The offensive, ignorant question is especially troubling coming from Huffman, an emergency room physician.
"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."
Nan Whaley, Mayor of Dayton, commented that Huffman's questions was "racist and unacceptable."
Huffman later apologized for his question, saying:
"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."
During the hearing, the Senator had asked the question to Angela Dawson, director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health.
"That is not the opinion of leading medical experts in this country."
Some of Huffman's colleagues have come to his defense, saying his question was indeed offensive but came from a place of genuine ignorance.
Republican Chairman Matt Borges commented:
"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."
Meanwhile, Howse pointed out that, while Huffman's question may have been ignorantly well-intentioned, it was also indicative of the systemic racism Black people face every day.
"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."
Racial bias is still alive an well, even among those with the best intentions.