Jefferson County Board of Health eyes racism resolution

Draft would be state’s third to declare it public health crisis

PORT TOWNSEND — Tonia Burkett loves her primary care physician at Jefferson Healthcare. But she’s noticed that rarely, if ever, does her white doctor encourage her to seek preventive care.

“She will address the issue at hand when I go see her,” Burkett said, “but she won’t suggest I get a breast cancer screening or a pelvic exam. And that is something that a lot of people of color experience in this country. When they do get something like cancer, it’s more likely to be late-stage and result in more severe outcomes.”

Prior to the Jefferson County Board of Health monthly meeting, Burkett, a 50-year-old biracial Port Townsend resident, was one of about 30 community members who reviewed and provided feedback on a draft resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.

Board member and County Commissioner Kate Dean sought input on the resolution from Jefferson County’s Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) community before the board discussed it Thursday.

Board members plan to contribute minor edits before they take action on the resolution Sept. 17.

“It is not only important and necessary to receive input in drafting a statement like this,” said Cameron Jones, a Port Townsend resident who helped Dean solicit feedback, “but [it is] absolutely imperative that BIPOC folk are involved in the development and implementation of subsequent measures and initiatives that make this statement a reality in Jefferson County.”

Save for a preamble, Jefferson County’s draft draws heavily on a King County resolution adopted in June. One notable difference, however, comes in the Jefferson County resolution’s first point.

“We acknowledge that in East Jefferson County we live on land usurped from indigenous peoples and that the ongoing presence of systemic, cultural and personal racism in this country continue to distribute privilege and access inequitably.”

While all Board of Health members expressed support for the resolution in general, County Commissioner David Sullivan questioned the use of the word “usurped.”

“The tribes have actually taken this to court and won — that we need to follow these treaties — and they’ve done that more than once,” he said.

Dean defended the use of that word, saying, “The treaties came a couple hundred years after settlers arrived here and were usually a very brave compromise for the tribes, so I want to be really sensitive to that.”

Citing his own observation of prejudice against people of Chinese descent, Sullivan also questioned the term BIPOC, saying, “I just have trouble lumping everybody into the category of people of color except for indigenous and Black.”

After King and Pierce counties, Jefferson County’s resolution would be the third adopted in Washington state. And even if it amounts to little more than a good-faith statement in a county where roughly 90 percent of residents identify as white, Burkett says acknowledging institutionalized racism locally is the first step to dismantling it.

“I think there’s value in just recognizing that people of color exist here,” she said, “and that a big part of the reason they disproportionately experience health issues is because of structural racism that is not necessarily intentional.”

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Jefferson County reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 360-328-1222.

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