A Resolution May Declare Racism a Crisis in Thurston County

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Racism may be declared a crisis in Thurston County if the board of county commissioners advance and approve a new resolution at their Tuesday meeting.

County manager Ramiro Chavez introduced the resolution during a March 2 agenda setting meeting for the board's consideration. The resolution comes after the board took action on Jan. 26 to affirm the illegality of racist language still present in hundreds of local deeds and plats, and it follows a year of protests and conversations around racial equity.

In the resolution's current form, it directs Chavez to create a racial equity action plan by June 30 and develop another resolution establishing a policy advisory committee to advance racial equity. The draft of the resolution also directs county offices and departments to review hiring practices to recruit and retain Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in government.

"The board of county commissioners declares racism a crisis affecting many of our residents, threatens their health, safety and well-being now and over the long term," Chavez read from the resolution.

The commissioners did not comment on the initial draft on March 2, but it became a topic of discussion during a Thursday meeting.

Commissioner Gary Edwards, who previously served as Thurston County Sheriff for 20 years, questioned whether there were any examples of racism in the county. He added he had never seen it or experienced it.

"If we do have racism, I'd like to do something about it, if we are aware of it, other than just talk about it through a proclamation," Edwards said. "I can't believe that as a manager of public employees for many, many years. We never tolerated any type of racism that I was aware of and if I was made aware of it, I'm sure we dealt with it."

Edwards then asked Commissioner Carolina Mejia if she had any examples of racism to share. Mejia, the first woman of color to serve on the board, affirmatively said the county has a racism problem.

"I've spoken with many staff members of color who have worked in other counties and have come here, and they expressed concern," Mejia said. "It's is not like (people perpetuating racism) are wearing a sign with a derogatory term or anything like that, but sometimes it's small actions, small things you say that disregard someone's colored background."

Mejia had to defend herself against baseless allegations she lacked citizenship during her campaign last year. The fiasco led to some of her personal information being compromised, and it even entangled Edwards, who had asked for her private information from the county human resources department.

She previously told The Olympian she decided to run for commissioner to bring better representation to the board, and she said she has since cleared the air with Edwards.

At the meeting, Mejia said the purpose of the proclamation is to audit where the county stands and how it can move forward.

"The idea I got from this is seeing how we can just continue to better ourselves and really improve on our policies," Mejia said. "If you've never experienced it, it's not out in the open but there are certain policies that do affect our BIPOC community or our BIPOC staff here especially."

Commissioner Tye Menser said he does believe there are direct instances of racism but added it can also be systemic and subconscious. As an example, he said the law enforcement in Berkeley, California, where he lived while he attended law school, disproportionately pulled over people of color for minor violations.

"The officer would say 'Well, I saw that cracked-in taillight, so I pulled that person over,'" Menser said. "But they are not pulling over people at the same rate and it's probably subconscious. They probable just kind of have an embedded cultural stereotype of what they grew up thinking a criminal profile looks like."

Menser said subconscious actions led to marginalized groups being inappropriately harassed. As a result, Menser said Berkeley simply eliminated the ability of officers to stop people for minor violations because they could not do it in a race-neutral fashion.

In Thurston County, Menser said racism has not been as bad as other parts of the country, but it's still very much a problem.

"We've come a long way, but there's still a lot of subconscious institutionalized racism that has to be rooted out of our culture," Menser said.

Addressing Edwards question, Chavez said the resolution will cite some statistics illustrating a lack of racial equity including one that finds life expectancy for BIPOC in Thurston County to be lower than the 81-year average.

"There could be many reasons behind that, as Commissioner Menser stated, but certainly they are indicators of what I perceive to be a systemic racism," Chavez said.

Chavez said he intends to invite all county elected officials and appointed directors to participate when the board takes action on the item. Residents are also invited to participate, he added.

In addition to creating an action plan and policy advisory committee, the resolution commits the board to seek resources and funding to accomplish the actions included in the resolution. It also calls on businesses, non-profits, academia, large institutions, faith-based organizations and service clubs to help eliminate systemic racism in the county.

"The board of county commissioners commits to promote equity, inclusion and diversity in all aspects of county government and recognizes that addressing systemic racism requires long-term commitment, intentional actions, ongoing learning and meaningful change informed and led by communities of color," Chavez read from the resolution.

The resolution will be reviewed at least once more at Tuesday's morning agenda setting meeting before going to a vote. Members of the public can attend the regular board meeting via Zoom if they wish to provide public comment, or they can simply watch any meeting from the Thurston County YouTube channel.

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