Moderator Nancy Retsinas read the virtual room at the beginning of a much-anticipated discussion Friday on systemic racism in Clark County.
“We are about to embark on some uncomfortable conversations,” Retsinas said.
The Clark County Council joined the first of three virtual listening sessions, featuring presentations from the Vancouver NAACP, Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens Council 47013, YWCA Clark County and the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program.
The discussions are meant to foster dialogue, not a debate, Retsinas said. She also read a definition of systemic racism, differentiating from other types of racism that leads to behaviors such as uttering racial slurs.
“Ways in which the joint operations of institutions produce racialized outcomes and perpetuate white supremacy,” the definition read in part.
Jasmine Tolbert, vice-president of NAACP Vancouver, began by describing instances of racism cemented in policy throughout the 1900s.
Tolbert mentioned the inability of Asian couples to obtain marriage licenses, the visible presence of the Klu Klux Klan in the county and increased policing in minority neighborhoods. She also cited examples of intentional barriers to employment and housing in both the government and by other societal groups.
Tolbert then acknowledged what some viewers might have been thinking at that point: that we already know about instances of racism in the past.
“But what you don’t understand sometimes is that while these things (were) happening back then, (they were) laying the foundation, a foundation that will impact us now,” Tolbert said. “By acknowledging that it is present and that these systems were created by racist people, we are then able to fight and move forward and change these items.”
Tim Murphy, Northwest Justice Project staff attorney, then mentioned the most recent catalyst that led to the listening sessions.
On June 24, Council Chair Eileen Quiring said during a council time meeting that, “I do not agree that we have systemic racism in our county. Period.”
The comment prompted the local NAACP and LULAC to call for her resignation. When Quiring rejected the request, the four organizations called for the sessions.
Murphy referred to recent police shootings in the county and disparate rates of incarceration among minority groups.
“And we see it through the council chair espousing ignorant and dangerous viewpoints denying the existence of an indisputable fact,” Murphy said.
Quiring interjected, leading Murphy and the council chair to begin talking over each other.
“I don’t want anybody participating in this session to feel as though they are being put on the defensive,” Retsinas said. “Let’s keep our eye on the problems, not on personalities.”
Quiring called the comment “demeaning,” and Councilor Gary Medvigy agreed. Murphy, on the other hand, called the comment “descriptive,” before advancing to a new topic.
Murphy cited a state Attorney General’s Office report from last year. It found that Vancouver Public Schools’ discipline practices keep a higher proportion of students of color out of school for discipline issues than other students.
He also said that the Clark County Jail consists of 9 percent Black residents inmates at a given time, despite an overall population of less than 3 percent.
Murphy also talked about how Black Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at roughly three times the rate of white Americans despite similar use rates.
“We see clearly what the common denominator is, and it isn’t behavior,” Murphy said. “The issue is race.”
Murphy said that “every statistical analysis” of institutions in the county confirms the existence of systemic racism.
“When we are chasing after a problem that’s this serious, we need to realize the depth of it, the seriousness of it,” Murphy said. “We really need to ask about why we’re being defensive about it.”
Elizabeth Fitzgearld, executive director of the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program, spoke on issues regarding Native Americans. She began by showing a map that illustrated the amount of land in the U.S. that Native Americans once occupied.
In what is now Clark County, that land used to be inhabited by the Chinook, Klickitat and Cowlitz tribes.
“One way to think of this map is to look at the immense wealth (taken from) these tribal groups,” Fitzgearld said.
Fitzgearld offered examples of housing and employment discrimination, including a photo of a racial “covenant” in which local homeowners agreed not to sell to Black families. Clark County has a Black population of 2.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“They were, in a very coordinated manner, forced out,” Fitzgearld said. “Today, we have a visibly homogenous community.”
Recently, the local lawyers program has heard of instances when landlords tell Latin American residents that they will contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they report poor living conditions, Fitzgearld said.
Vanessa Yarie, director of services and mission impact with YWCA Clark County, discussed how people of color often have less access to child care. At the same time they are more susceptible to losing children to the foster care system, including in instances of domestic violence.
Yarie also mentioned the barriers victims of color feel that can prevent them from reporting domestic violence, such as ICE presence at courthouses.
LULAC Washington State Director Diana Perez referred to a 2014 survey that found that 74 percent of Latin American workers reported discrimination at workplaces as well as the fact that the median age compared to non-Hispanic residents in the state is less than half.
Perez said that commonly stated views by local institutions, including employers and organizations that label themselves as “progressive,” can have unintended consequences.
“The general perception that the area is progressive and liberal is problematic because it prevents people from recognizing racist practices,” Perez said. “Organizations and businesses can invest resources in community building and internal practices to mitigate this.”
Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of the local LULAC, discussed how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting minority groups in Clark County. According to state Department of Health data, 44 percent of Washington cases are Hispanic, compared to a 13 percent overall Hispanic population.
Like other health issues that affect minority groups, the disparity is often caused by lack of access to healthcare, food and housing, Hamilton Rosales said.
“Longstanding, systemic, health and social inequities have increased the risk of getting COVID-19 for members of racial and ethnic groups,” Hamilton Rosales said.
The next session, 6 p.m. Aug. 12, will allow members of the public to share their experiences with systemic racism in a moderated forum. A third session, 6 p.m. Aug. 26, will feature the same format, except it will not be recorded.