Whatcom County prepares to declare racism a public health crisis


Oct. 8, 2020 — As Gov. Jay Inslee promised to strive for health equity if reelected to his third term as governor, the Whatcom County Council looks likely to pass a resolution that would declare racism as a public health crisis, taking steps toward addressing racial injustices in the county.

The action comes while Gov. Inslee said in the Washington gubernatorial debate on Wednesday, Oct. 7, that, if elected, his challenger Chief Loren Culp would cut health insurance supplied through the Affordable Care Act from 800,000 Washingtonians of color.

“We have healthcare for 800,000 people of color right now because of Obamacare,” the governor said.

While the suggestion that Chief Culp would make such budget cuts was disproved by The Seattle Times, it begs the question as to how the governor’s removal from office would affect health equity efforts throughout the state.

In Whatcom County, government efforts look headed in the direction of equity no matter what.

At a council as the health board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 6, the council pushed a resolution forward that would commit the health board “to actively participating in the dismantling of systemic racism and the impacts of racism in Whatcom County” to committee for possible amendments.

“Growing up in the Meridian School District was isolating,” Shu-Ling Zhao said in the meeting, offering perspective as a Chinese American. “And I don’t think I fully understood that until I got older, and I could feel some of those deep ripples of trauma.”

Zhao, who is the president of Whatcom Women in Business and capital cabinet chair for Sylvia Center for the Arts, believes Whatcom County is a beautiful community to live in and not a hateful place, but that it is limited by the dominant population that lives in it.

“Because we’re a predominantly white community that we just don’t have the opportunity to meet other cultures, and to embrace them, and understand them,” Zhao said.

With a population of 229,247 people, Whatcom County is 78.3% white, 9.81% Hispanic or Latino, 4.8% Asian, 3.4% Native American or Alaska Native, 1.3% Black or African American and 0.3% Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, according to data from July 1, 2019, from the United States Census Bureau.

The resolution states the county and health board will fight against systemic racism by ensuring diversity of race within county commissions, hiring practices that provide greater opportunity for people of color and supporting community efforts to amplify issues of racism. The county will also implement annual training for staff on implicit bias, trauma informed practices and a review of health disparities. It will build and strengthen its relationships with other organizations that are confronting racism and revise county policies, procedures and ordinances to ensure racial equity and transparency.

“As a white person, I cannot know how it would feel to not be welcome or to feel like I don’t belong because of the color of my skin and what that daily impact would be on my mental and physical health,” said Heather Flaherty, executive director of the Chuckanut Health Foundation. “And I can’t also understand how it would feel to have the systems that are supposed to protect me feel like they are stacked against me.”

Flaherty went on to share disparities within the community’s systems. The indiginous population is 3.4% of the community but makes up 14.8% of the Whatcom County Jail population, according to 2016 data. The hispanic population is 9.81% of the community but makes up 30.8% of confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to county COVID-19 data.

The council also discussed an ordinance to create a child and family task force to work on principles of equity, family engagement and results-based approaches for increasing kindergarten preparedness in the county — an issue the governor also supports.

“Let’s look [for] a way to get kids of color ready for kindergarten and ready for first grade so they don’t fall behind,” Gov. Inslee said.

The council will appoint 10-15 members to the task force who will clarify goals and metrics to use to measure the effectiveness of the county’s policy and funding support for child and family services. The task force will be required to report its progress and findings to the county council and county executive over three phases, with the final report due Oct. 1, 2022.

The council will further discuss the racism as a public health crisis resolution on Oct. 27, 2020, in either the committee of the whole or public works and health board committee.