SAND DIEGO — San Diego County supervisors this month formally defined racism as a public health crisis, acknowledging for the first time that a broad and baked-in prejudice underpins virtually every aspect of public policy.
The unanimous declaration came days ahead of the national holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and after a majority of Democrats was elected to the county board.
Among other actions, the vote directed county officials to begin collecting data that will help them identify and respond to racial disparities in health, education, criminal justice and other staples of American society.
It was the latest advance in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back history of race-based discrimination that began even before the nation’s founding and was formally codified in the U.S. Constitution, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person when calculating for congressional representation.
“Racism permeates our whole society,” said Darwin Fishman, who teaches African-American Studies at San Diego State University and co-founded the Racial Justice Coalition.
“We are making some progress,” he said. “But not only is that progress fragile, we can certainly regress.”
COVID-19 and the recent, high-profile deaths of Black people at the hands of police may finally have generated the swell of public opinion that King was referring to when he famously said the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.
Not since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that King seeded and cultivated has society become so focused on promoting equity across the melting pot of races that make up the American culture.
Leaders in government, business and academia outside San Diego are introducing legislation and adopting new practices to ensure basic fairness for all people.
In Sacramento, public health officials have begun mapping cases of COVID-19 to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has afflicted minority neighborhoods at much higher rates than white and well-to-do communities.
According to the state’s Department of Public Health, Latino people make up about 39% of Californians but account for 47% of deaths.
Maps produced by the Public Health Alliance of Southern California, a coalition of 10 regional public health agencies, show cases of COVID-19 occurring more often in lower-earning communities across the state, especially the interior farm towns and cities dotting the Central Valley.
Closer to home, neighborhoods with large white populations like Encinitas and Del Mar report some of the lowest infection rates, while the virus is spreading faster in places with large Latino and Black populations like Chula Vista, National City and communities in central and southeastern San Diego.
The neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19 also tend to be poorer than the neighborhoods with low case totals.
“These disparate COVID-19 outcomes are rooted in and exacerbated by structural inequities that have long existed in our communities,” said Tracy Delaney, founding director of the public health alliance.
Doctors who work in community health have long known that the social and economic factors woven into people’s neighborhoods — income levels, housing costs, access to nutrition and healthcare — powerfully shape health.
“I don’t think it’s a new concept, but when the numbers are so starkly placed in people’s faces about the risk of death, risk of hospitalization, risk of infection being so much higher in Black and brown communities, it just brings it that much more into the mainstream public square,” said Dr. Christian Ramers.
Ramers is the chief of population health at Family Health Centers of San Diego and has seen firsthand how communities of color have been disproportionately burdened by the pandemic.
While many people have acknowledged and been sensitive to the health disparities revealed by the pandemic, true change won’t be achieved without decisions and, at a broader level, policy shifts that work to dismantle inequity, Ramers said.
“A lot of this is just about empathy and knowing what a community has been through and knowing the historical inequities that have been there for years and knowing what it’s like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes,” he said. “That will help you craft policy that I think makes things more fair.”
Ramers said he feels progress is being made and applauded county leaders for declaring that racism continues to be a public health crisis.
“If we can take a step forward out of this pandemic and utilize some of the techniques that make our governments more community responsive and make them more conscious of history and historical inequities, then I think we would be moving in the right direction,” he said.
George Floyd died in the street on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the man’s neck for more than 8 minutes.
The killing was caught on video and broadcast across the world, and within hours the Black Lives Matter movement first sparked by the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 came back with a fervor not seen in years.
Millions of protesters marched through cities and towns from coast to coast, protesting an American justice system that so regularly costs minorities their dignity and liberty and too often claims their lives.
The street protests lasted for weeks, and longer in some communities. They were overwhelmingly peaceful, although some turned violent after crowds shifted and the mood and tenor grew darker as night fell.
In San Diego, thousands of demonstrators amassed downtown to confront local officials and demand reforms in police practices.
In La Mesa, activists were especially bitter over a separate video that emerged of an officer’s apparently race-driven and unjust arrest of a Black man. An afternoon protest in late May turned ugly when looters victimized some businesses and arsonists set fire to two banks and other property.
Despite the arrest in La Mesa, the man was not prosecuted. La Mesa police officer Matthew Dages was fired in August. Early this month, District Attorney Summer Stephan announced that Dages was being charged with a felony, filing a false police report.
Within days of the mass protests, San Diego police outlawed what’s called the carotid restraint, the sometimes-fatal tactic of subduing a suspect by collaring them by the neck and wrestling them to the ground. A San Diego Union-Tribune analysis revealed San Diego officers have used the move disproportionately on Black people over the years.
The Sheriff’s Department followed suit that same week, and a statewide ban on the neck hold was signed into law last fall.
In November almost 75% of San Diego voters approved Measure B, a wholesale restructuring of the citizen’s police oversight board.
The ballot measure called for dissolving what was perceived as an ineffective panel and creating a more robust and independent body to review allegations of police misconduct and other civilian complaints.
The reconstituted board has yet to embark on its work as discussions over how the panel will be restructured are still underway.
On the same ballot, California voters rejected a measure to repeal Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative that prohibited preferential treatment of Blacks, Latinos, women and other minorities in public employment, education or contracting.
‘WE ARE FAILING BLACK PEOPLE’
Research has consistently shown that Black Americans have a harder time achieving the prosperity so familiar to their white counterparts.
Nationally, the median household income for Black families was just over $38,000 a year, notably below the $61,000 median for White households, the nonprofit Urban Institute reported last February.
About one-third of Black households earned less than $25,000 a year, while just 18% of white households reported the same level of income, the study said. And more than 71% of white households owned their own home; the home-ownership rate for Blacks was just under 42%.
In San Diego County, the median income for Black households was just over $59,400 and for White, non-Latino households was about $94,370, according to 2019 census data. About 30% of Black San Diegans owned their homes, compared with 61% of White residents, according to a 2018 study by the real estate brokerage Redfin.
Research also shows that white Americans are badly informed about Black people’s experiences with the criminal-justice system, employment and income, among other things.
The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University published a study in September showing how poorly informed whites are when it came to estimating the size of disparities in categories like accumulated wealth.
Study participants estimated that Black families accrued $73 for every $100 collected by white families, researchers found, when in fact the rate is $10 for every $100.
Some of the best known corporations in America began promoting racial equity — and directing money to efforts aimed at leveling the playing field for their Black and brown consumers.
“It is not enough for us to condemn racism,” said Dan Schulman, the president and CEO of PayPal, which dedicated $500 million to recruiting, advocacy and other equity-related initiatives. “We must be anti-racist.”
PepsiCo committed $400 million over five years to lift up Black communities and boost Black representation in the company workforce. Apple steered $100 million to a similar initiative.
In the immediate aftermath of the mass protests across the region, San Diego city and county officials created specific departments to address disparities between whites and minorities.
The San Diego City Council established the Office and Race & Equity, creating a $3 million equity fund and additional money for an assessment and action plan. The office will specifically examine hiring and pay at City Hall.
County supervisors quickly followed suit, setting up the Office of Equity and Racial Justice to tackle many of the same issues.
Some activists said changing the status quo means actually effecting change — not setting up committees to study disparities that have been apparent for years.
“You already know people that do the same job are being paid less, so they should be paid the same,” said Tasha Williamson, the former 2020 San Diego mayoral candidate.
“They should stop continuing to have these long, drawn-out government processes,” she said. “COVID-19 showed us they can do things immediately. Racial justice is not something they are invested in.”
Williamson said Black people in San Diego are over-policed and over-represented in gang databases. Their children are taken by social workers at a higher rate than whites, and students receive more suspensions and expulsions, she said.
“We are failing Black people,” Williamson said. “I give San Diego a failing grade because they know there are racial injustices in every system that are denying people access and harming people for generations.”
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