A sharply divided Hennepin County Board approved a resolution Tuesday to declare racism a public health crisis and outline a strategy to address it.
The board approved the racism statement 6-1. Later and after a lengthy debate, the board voted 4-3 to implement 10 directives to reduce racial disparities in housing, health care, education, incarceration and job opportunities.
But commissioners who opposed the resolution said the directives were confusing and didn’t address the funding needed to achieve the stated goals. The board agreed last week in committee to advance the resolution for Tuesday’s final vote.
It was sponsored by Angela Conley and Irene Fernando, the board’s first two commissioners of color, who contended that Hennepin County had failed to address the impact that systematic racism has on residents and that a holistic and detailed approach is necessary to reduce disparities.
“Year after year after year, we find ourselves as a state — and ultimately as the largest county in this state — ranking among the worst places to live for black and Indigenous people,” said Conley. “More and more across the country, professionals in the field of public health are saying that we need to name structural racism as the root cause of our work to eliminate disparities.”
The directives say county officials should promote policies to improve the health of communities of color, join in community efforts to confront racism and address racism and health in budget materials.
County officials are supposed to report back to the board in three months on a timetable for action.
Commissioners Jeff Johnson, Mike Opat and Jan Callison voted against the directives in the resolution. Callison said the county doesn’t have authority on public health issues for several cities.
“If you want to have an impact, you have to spend money,” she said. “Will this really make a difference? What are we asking our staff to do?”
Conley said the county has done significant work to reduce racial disparities, but the resolution and its directives will shift how officials examine policies and ordinances. The resolution has a lot of teeth, she said, calling it “a historic move for us.”
Johnson said the resolution sends a message that racism is more important than other issues in Hennepin County, and he questioned how it would enable the board to tackle disparities in ways it hasn’t before.
He was the only commissioner to vote against the statement that racism is a public health crisis.
Callison proposed amending the 10 directives but Conley said her measure “watered down” the resolution, and the amendment failed 4-3.
County Administrator David Hough said he didn’t know of another county in the United States that had done more to reduce racial disparities. He said the resolution reinforced what county officials were already trying to achieve and that his staff will get back to the board in three months with recommendations.