Last Updated on May 25, 2022 by BVN
Breanna Reeves | VOICE
Over two years ago the world seemed to come to a complete stop, in more ways than one. The global announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic forced countries to close their borders and forever changed the world.
In the midst of the pandemic there was also an ongoing struggle for liberation on behalf of Black Americans who are three times more likely than white Americans to be killed by the police, according to a Harvard study.
On May 25, 2020 everyone became a witness to the statistic as then 17-year-old Darnella Frazier recorded the murder of George Floyd as Derek Chauvin, a police officer, kneeled on Floyd’s neck, blocking his airway and effectively killing him. As the viral video circulated across the internet, for exactly 9 minutes and 29 seconds, the world stood still — again.
Ignited by a history of police brutality, institutional racism and injustice, like in the case of Breonna Taylor who was fatally shot by Louisville police officers while she was sleeping, demonstrators crowded the streets during the summer of 2020 to demand justice.
Following national protests, many local jurisdictions began to declare racism as a public health crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic revealed blatant disparities among those who were dying from COVID and those who had access to vaccines and treatments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that African Americans, Hispanic/ Latinos and American Indians experienced higher rates of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and death compared to white populations.
As a result of this information, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted to declare racism a public health crisis on June 23 2020 and August 4, 2020, respectively.
“In the spirit of civil rights giant, Congressman John Lewis, I am proud of today’s historical vote within Riverside County to advance social justice, equity and community empowerment,” said Riverside County Board Chair and Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez in the initial press release. “Today, we passed two major efforts to fight racism and have listening sessions to look at how we fund and re-fund safety net services and meet the social needs of our communities.”
Today marks two years since George Floyd was murdered. Following the protests by demonstrators and declarations made by government leaders across the Inland Empire, what progress has been made to address racism as a public health crisis in these communities?
In June 2020, the NAACP Riverside chapter and other community organizations called on the Board of Supervisors to declare racism a public health crisis and create a county-wide African American Task Force to “root out systemic racism in fear of receiving racist backlash.” During the June 23 board meeting, NAACP Chair Corey Jackson made the request known during the public comment portion of the meeting.
On August 4, 2020, the board unanimously voted, 5-0, to declare racism as a public health crisis. With this acknowledgement, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors set goals that included diversifying the county’s workforce, implementing solutions to eliminate systemic inequality in external services and enhancing public education.
Riverside County Board Supervisor Karen Spiegel, of the Second District, explained that recognizing racism as a public health crisis “woke people up” in Riverside. Spiegel said that the county’s focus was specifically on racism as a public issue which led to the development of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force.
Diversity Equity Task Force
The task force made recommendations after gathering knowledge about the government system and practices of the county’s workforce. One key recommendation has led to the recruitment of a DEI officer who “establishes, supports, leads, and manages efforts to identify and eliminate structural and systemic bias in those areas where the County has control or influence,” according to the job listing.
Additionally, the board has applied for grants of $150 million to support health equity issues. With this funding, the county board has utilized the Healthy Places Index, a platform that maps data on social conditions that impact health.
“This really helps us to identify the historically underserved folks and the under-resourced. And we found that during COVID, those communities, disadvantaged communities did really have [significantly] less resources available,” Spiegel said.
The County also launched listening sessions with the community to learn about what resources residents needed. During one of the listening sessions, resident Avalon Edwards asked the board to consider how their budget fails to fund measures for more social safety nets, insisting that Riverside County has the funds to “meaningfully reinvest in our community.”
Supervisor Jeff Hewitt of the Fifth District explained that the listening sessions were very instrumental because he learned that with all the services the county has available, those services were not easily accessed by certain members of the community.
“And then one of the key findings also is that we have found that African Americans don’t feel connected to the county system,” Hewitt said. “And that’s why [it was] so important that we got out there and we really, really pushed — you’re not going to get your foot in the door unless you have this first step, step-on. And that’s what we’re trying to provide.”
As of now, the board is waiting to fulfill the DEI officer position and plans to review and update policies throughout the department. The board will also be reviewing how the county’s general fund can support health and welfare services.
San Bernardino County
On June 23, 2020, San Bernardino County’s resolution affirming racism as a public health crisis acknowledged:
“WHEREAS, racism results in the structuring of opportunity and assigning of value based solely on skin color and other physical characteristics, which creates unfair disadvantages to some individuals and communities and unfair advantages to other individuals and communities, therefore preventing societies as a whole from achieving full potential.”
Following this declaration, the county developed the Equity Element Group, which is made up of influential Black community leaders who make recommendations to the board that will close the gaps in services and opportunities for Black residents in the community.
The Equity Element Group includes members of local nonprofit organizations, community organizations and businesses such as Dina Walker of the BLU Educational Foundation, Pastor Samuel Casey of the Churches Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE) and Chache Wright, president of the San Bernardino National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Wright explained that the efforts have been slow moving because the county wanted to first emphasize the role and responsibilities of the county to the equity group before getting started with addressing the issues. While Wright understood the county’s intent, he wasn’t particularly happy about it.
The equity group is primarily focused on business development and education. By partnering with organizations in the community who have always been involved in community building, the equity group hopes this will allow community members to give feedback on the issues that need to be addressed.
In regard to tangible actions that have been taken to address racism as a public health crisis in the county, Wright stated that actual steps have yet to be made. He recognizes that as part of the collective, in order to make strides, they must be a little more aggressive and deliberate about what needs to be implemented, Wright explained.
In a statement to Black Voice News, the county shared that the equity group, county schools and county staff collaborated under the guidance of Theodore Miller and Hyma Menath to develop and achieve “substantive goals.”
According to the county, “through this community driven process we will eventually see the policy and program changes that will institutionalize the equity the Board of Supervisors has pledged to achieve.”
The county’s focus on equity extended to public health (COVID-19 outreach), public safety (focusing on equity in law enforcement) and civic engagement (increasing voting efforts), as noted in the county’s statement. During the pandemic, the county partnered with local Black churches to expand COVID-19 testing and vaccine resources in the community.
Wright stated that this work won’t and shouldn’t be accomplished overnight. “It definitely will take some steps. And we implore the community to be active in this role by interacting with us and reaching out to us, and also holding us accountable. I wouldn’t have stepped forward to address this without taking on that notion of understanding and responsibility.”
San Bernardino County Perspective
As the county continues to address equity in the community, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors is expected to recognize Juneteenth (June 19) as an official county holiday in an effort to encourage “all county residents to take time on that day to reflect upon how each of us can practice and promote equity for all people and celebrate that race, ethnicity, heritage and/or belief must never stand in the way of freedom.”
In declaring Juneteenth as a county holiday and developing an equity task force, the county acknowledged that these tasks are “low-hanging fruit initiatives” that can be quickly implemented.
More work to be done
As San Bernardino and Riverside Counties continue to address inequality in their communities, other community leaders recognize that more progress needs to be made which will only happen when there is a consensus on what is most beneficial for the community.
Che Wright, vice president of the San Bernardino NAACP chapter, explained that there is a lot of bureaucracy that impacts the goals of the community, further noting that it is important to diversify the people who are at the table rather than relying on popular or well-known organizations to represent the community.
According to Che Wright there are several aspects that need to be addressed as it relates to benefiting the community in the long-term and promoting equity, which include expanding educational resources, promoting financial literacy and supporting small businesses, adding she hasn’t been actively attending the group meetings due to frustration about the lack of consensus on what’s best for the community.
Che Wright stated that the county will continue to do the bare minimum until “we all get on the same page about what realistically our community needs.”