Jefferson health board to vote on racism resolution in October

Members debate use of ‘BIPOC’ at September meeting

PORT TOWNSEND — A proposed resolution that would declare racism “an acute and chronic public health crisis” won’t get a vote until Jefferson County’s board of health meets next month.

The seven-member board discussed the resolution for a second time during its monthly meeting last week before deciding to seek public comment and hold a vote Oct. 15.

The draft declaration, which is largely based on a King County resolution adopted in June, originally was drawn up by board member Kate Dean with input from about 30 Jefferson County residents who identify as Black, indigenous or people of color (BIPOC).

That term — BIPOC — was the primary subject of debate during the Sept. 17 discussion as board member David Sullivan expressed concern about its focus on Black and indigenous people while seemingly lumping all other non-white racial groups together as people of color.

“I find that inherently bad language, discriminatory language,” he said. “To bring out two groups and think that we’re going to put them out front somehow in this term, I think is inappropriate.”

Several other board members pushed back, saying the term — albeit relatively new — is widely accepted, especially by people who do not identify as white.

“This seems to be accepted everywhere, and I personally cannot even imagine challenging it as a white person,” said Sheila Westerman, who chairs the all-white board. “I just, I couldn’t.”

Dean said she is not in a position to argue with the term, either.

“I’m in a position to follow the lead of those communities who have chosen that,” Dean said.

Sullivan asked whether those communities include people of Asian, Middle Eastern and Central American descent, arguing those communities also have faced discrimination.

“I think it’s possible to say what we mean without using language that is questionable, really,” he said, suggesting the term is inappropriate for use in a county board of health resolution.

Board member Kees Kolff said that, while he agreed many racial groups face discrimination, he would defer to “people who know a lot more about this issue than we do.

“This is a particular time in history when the question of racism is being brought to the fore, because that is the issue of crisis right now,” he said. “To me, it’s a little bit like arguing with a Black person who says Black lives matter, and then responding, ‘Well, all lives matter.’ ”

Board member Greg Brotherton said the term “highlights the unique relationship both between the imperialist U.S. and indigenous people, and Black people,” adding that “I’m not smart enough or knowledgeable enough to come up with a better term.”

Board member Denis Stearns said any statement the board approves will be imperfect.

“The question really comes down to whether we speak up in an imperfect way, or whether we use that imperfection as a reason not to speak up at all,” he said.

King and Pierce are the only counties in the state to have declared racism a public health crisis.

The Clallam County Board of Health discussed the issue in August but made no decision, with the expectation that it would take it up again at a later date.

Whatcom County’s board of health is set to consider a resolution Oct. 6 after its public health advisory board unanimously voted in favor of it Sept. 3, according to The Bellingham Herald.

Jefferson County’s proposed resolution states the board commits to revising its policies, practices and culture with a racial justice and equity lens, participating in racial equity training and seeking diversity in board membership, among other things.

To comment on the proposed resolution, email boh@co.jefferson.wa.us ahead of the board’s meeting at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 15.

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Jefferson County senior reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by phone at 360-417-3509 or by email at njohnson@peninsuladailynews.com.

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