After lengthy debate, Hennepin County commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday declaring racism a public health crisis.
The action was introduced by Angela Conley and Irene Fernando, the first commissioners of color to serve on the board. The measure, introduced at a committee meeting, passed by a 4-0 vote, with two commissioners abstaining. It will be put up for a final board vote Tuesday.
Commissioners Mike Opat and Jeff Johnson wanted the final vote delayed because they had questions about the resolution's impact and 10 directives attached to it.
Among the directives:
• Acknowledge that the county's current public health fact sheets present a clear picture of health disparity along lines of race/ethnicity.
• Recognize that the disparity is significant and has direct impacts from birth to death to the individual, as well as to their family and community members.
• Develop a consistent methodology for data collection, reporting and analysis related to race/ethnicity for future public health data fact sheets and assessment of internal policies and procedures.
Although Conley acknowledged the county has built a foundation to reduce racial disparities, she said there is much evidence from national and county sources to show racism's negative impact on the health and development of children and adults who are black, Indigenous and of color.
"As the largest county in the state, Hennepin bares the brunt of racial disparity," she said. "Minneapolis ranks as one of the worst places for people of color to live. We need to name structural racism as the root cause of our work to eliminate disparity."
No matter the topic discussed at board meetings — whether it be infectious disease, housing, income or criminal justice — racial disparity factors into it, Conley said. Although there are fewer blacks in the county than whites, blacks have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, she said.
Board Chairwoman Marion Greene and Commissioner Debbie Goettel supported the resolution, with Greene saying that racism was a pandemic before COVID-19 hit. Opat said he appreciated the detailed resolution but received it Friday and didn't have enough time to raise questions. He also questioned the fiscal impact of the action.
While expressing concerns about the resolution, Johnson said it's a sensitive issue and comes at a difficult time, given the police killing of George Floyd last month. If he were to vote against the measure, people will call him a racist, he said.
"The county has already done a lot of work on reducing disparity," Johnson said. "I want to know what the resolution will allow us to do that we aren't already or able to do."
Conley said it helps the county focus on disparity. She added that anyone who didn't support the measure wasn't racist in her mind.
"We just have to be honest about this issue," she said.
In other action, the board voted to keep nine of the county's 41 libraries closed until next year because of COVID-19. The libraries are East Lake, Linden Hills, Pierre Bottineau and Roosevelt in Minneapolis, and those in Golden Valley, Long Lake, Minnetonka, Osseo and St. Bonifacius. Some libraries have been offering curbside service for a few weeks. No timeline was given as to when the other libraries will open or in what capacity.
The board also approved $12.5 million in federal funding for several COVID-19 related programs, including summer youth programs, food security, small business grants and the reopening of service centers.
Commissioners also passed the bylaws and charter for the county's Race Equity Advisory Council.