Marin County is gearing to update its 2017 racial equity plan as it nears its goal to have every county employee receive several hours of anti-bias training.
“The cultural competence work has been huge,” said Angela Nicholson, an assistant county administrator overseeing much of the project. She said she had 37 people in a training Oct. 15.
The county is accepting applications to serve on a committee to revise the 2017 plan. County supervisors have authorized spending $2.7 million on racial equity initiatives this year despite a $16 million budget shortfall and uncertainty about coronavirus emergency funding.
Supervisors reallocated $1.7 million from the sheriff’s budget to equity initiatives in response to activists who called for funding cuts after the death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minnesota. Nicholson said the county hasn’t decided how it will spend most of the money, but a portion will be used to pay for guest speakers on equity issues.
Supervisors also delayed the acceptance of a $440,000 state grant to fund an additional school resource officer. Critics said non-White students are alienated by having police officers in schools.
During the recent training, Nicholson said, an employee asked how the county was going to continue to do racial equity work when it has a budget shortfall.
“My position is it’s not extra work; it is our work,” Nicholson said. “It needs to be built into every aspect of the organization.”
In April 2019, the county created the position of equity officer, who is paid a yearly salary of $162,469.
“I am the equity officer,” Anyania Muse wrote in an email, “but equity work isn’t just ‘my work’ it is the work and responsibility of every elected and county employee to shift the internal and external culture in the county. The goal of equity work is to find space for collaboration to shift the lives of our most vulnerable populations. This is a county that has both the resources, will, and ability to do this work. ”
Attention to racial disparity in Marin increased in 2011 when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined that Marin had “failed to meet its fair housing obligations” in allocating block grants and related housing funds.
As part of a settlement with HUD, Marin agreed to periodic analyses of the county’s “impediments to fair housing choice” and efforts to remove those impediments. Among those efforts has been an increased focus on equal opportunity hiring at the county.
The percentage of Marin County employees who are Latino increased from a little over 13% in 2013 to over 18% in 2019. The percentage of Asian employees increased from 8.64% in 2013 to just over 10% in 2019. The percentage of Black county employees inched up from 5.67% in 2013 to 6.22% in 2019.
Latino residents comprise 16% of Marin’s population; Asian residents, 6%; and Black residents, 3%.
The focus on race increased in 2017 when a report by Advancement Project California, a Los Angeles-based civil rights organization, ranked Marin County as the most racially unequal county in California.
Nicholson said the equity training, which every employee is required to take, was shortened from six hours to four hours after the pandemic hit and the class moved online. So far, 1,314 of the county’s 2,115 employees have received the training. According to the 2017 racial equity plan, the training includes the history of race in government, implicit and explicit bias and institutional and structural racism.
The training does not include the Harvard Implicit-Association Test, which has received much attention in the media, but the county urges employees to take the test, which is free online.
The test purports to demonstrate people’s unconscious, “implicit” racial bias by demonstrating that they associate negative connotations with certain racial groups. It does this by timing their response to pictures and words.
For example, if a person takes longer to press a button when matching positive words to Black faces, that is proof the person is “implicitly” biased. Nicholson said she has taken the test herself.
“It tells me I have bias,” she said. “Some people will say, ‘Oh, there is no way I’m biased.’ Everyone’s got bias.”
The 2017 race equity plan also mandated that each county department integrate racial equity considerations into its operations. The county’s Department of Health and Human Services was the first to do so, under former director Grant Colfax.
When he unveiled a race-based plan to achieve health equity in the county in February 2019, Colfax said, “This strategy really recognizes and acknowledges our country’s racist history and acknowledges that we need to address and redress these racial dynamics in our system in order to address health equity in our communities.”
Colfax stressed that equity is different from equality because it recognizes that certain people deserve extra help due to past inequities.
“Our equity strategies are having an impact,” Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s public health officer, told supervisors last week during a briefing on the county’s success in getting coronavirus infection rates down in San Rafael’s predominately Latino Canal neighborhood.
“That has been one of the key drivers of my response,” Willis said, “to try and use a health equity approach to the COVID-19 response.”
The county calls on applicants to the new race equity planning committee to identify as at least one of the following: a community member who is Black, indigenous or a person of color; identifies as a woman; is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex or asexual; is between 15 and 25 years old; is 60 years or older; is facing chronic illnesses, mental health challenges or disabilities; or is undocumented or underdocumented.
“It was more about being inclusive than exclusive,” Nicholson said. “We often get accused of listening to just a narrow group of the population. We don’t want that to be the case with this committee.”
The inclusion of Proposition 16 on the November ballot has once again raised the issue of whether “reverse discrimination” exists or is as some have charged simply “white supremacist and racist language.”
The state proposition, which the Board of Supervisors endorsed earlier this month, would make “affirmative action” legal again by repealing Proposition 209.
That 1996 measure prohibited government and public institutions from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to persons on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, public education and public contracting.
Arguing for Proposition 16, state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, wrote, “Quit lying to yourselves and saying race is not a factor … the bedrock of who we are in this country is based on race.”
While arguing against the initiative, Assemblyman Steven Choi, R-Irvine, wrote, “Is it right to give someone a job just because they are white, or black or green or yellow? We are talking about legalizing racism and sexism.”
The debate isn’t likely to end with Proposition 16. At the end of September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 3121, which calls for the creation of a committee to study the issue of reparations for African Americans. The Brookings Institute has recommended that descendants of Black slaves be given free college tuition, student loan forgiveness, down payment grants and small business grants.
In a recent article published on the news website The Hill, Jonathan Turley, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, wrote, “In 1976, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall lambasted the ‘illogic’ of civil rights advocates insisting that laws against discrimination should protect only minorities from discrimination. The first African American justice and civil rights litigator declared that whites also deserved such protections.”
Nicholson said, “I don’t believe in reverse discrimination. What we’re focused on is the systems that are in place and how do we as policymakers change the system so that everyone has equitable access to programs and services.”
The application deadline for the committee is 5 p.m. Nov. 6. Applications and additional details are online at bit.ly/3kjcLUc.
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