Health commissioner’s race comments called hurtful, embarrassing

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Colin Greene is defending himself after making controversial comments on racism and gun violence.

Greene was in the hot seat at a State Board of Health meeting on Thursday morning, where members called the interview published by The Washington Post last week “hurtful” and “embarrassing.”

The panel adopted a resolution formally condemning the comments and setting guidelines for the future, though they are technically unenforceable.

The Post article said Greene rejected that racism is a public health crisis and doubted its connection to worse health outcomes for people of color. 

“There have been a number of media publications recently alleging that I believe racism is not a factor in public health outcomes. Allow me to reassure you that I am not so naïve to hold such a foolish notion,” Greene said in his opening statement to the board. “Rather than simply echo proclamations of a crisis, I’ve chosen to direct VDH to examine specific, measurable, meaningful outcomes to address this issue.”

Pointing to higher death rates for black babies and mothers, Greene acknowledged that racism is a contributor. However, he said it’s hard to measure scientifically and it’s not the only factor contributing to disparities. 

Dr. Patricia Kinser, a member of the board, argued it can be measured and the evidence is clear. 

“Racial bias is deeply embedded in many of the policies and institutions that shape the social determinants of health, including housing, employment, education and access to health care, among others, and the consequences are vast,” Kinser said. 

Greene was pressed on specific quotes from the article, including, “If you say ‘racism,’ you’re blaming White people.” 

“There is absolutely no intent to eliminate any discussion of racism or the effects of racism,” Greene clarified. “What I want to do, and this is just one of many topics, is to avoid using language from the outset that is going to alienate a large chunk of the audience.” 

Dr. Holly Puritz, another board member, pushed back 

“By not using that word I feel very strongly that is to do a grave injustice as a leader to not elevate that to the level where you can educate,” Puritz said. 

A quote from Greene on gun violence also got a lot of attention. He reportedly said, “Gun violence is, frankly, a Democratic talking point. When you use that term, every Republican in the room is going to walk out.” 

Board member James Edmondson responded. He said, “Guns and violence are related. Denying the term gun violence is every bit as bad as denying the term racism as it applies to health outcomes.”

Greene said he thinks the phrase lumps different problems together and oversimplifies the issue. 

“Gun violence is a term that actually combines and again conflates at least four different issues…and I’m concerned it will miss opportunities to actually address the root causes of why people choose to take their own life and why people choose to take other people’s lives,” Greene said. 

Board Chair Faye Prichard said Greene “missed the mark” if his goal was to not be divisive. She said she had heard from state employees who felt they could not safely express differences of opinion under his leadership.

Greene assured members that this would not be an issue and committed to listening more. 

Governor Glenn Youngkin didn’t comment after the meeting.

Asked about the article on Tuesday, Youngkin said that Greene’s communication on racial health disparities was ineffective but he didn’t commit to replacing him. 

“I have not made a decision with Dr. Greene. I believe that Dr. Greene is very capable and, like I said, I’m very disappointed in his inability to communicate this message,” Youngkin said. 

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