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The author is a member of the stakeholders’ group that volunteered to create the proposal for the Whatcom Racial Equity Commission.
On Tuesday night (Oct. 11) the Whatcom County Council, on a 4-3 vote, passed an ordinance to create a Whatcom Racial Equity Commission. Though the council is elected on a nonpartisan basis, the vote divided along known partisan lines and shows that the council clearly has a progressive majority prepared to respond locally to the nationwide protests after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Here, peaceful marches and rallies and community organizing were the preponderant response, in liberal Bellingham, but also In Lynden and Ferndale.
In Bellingham, after a series of actions, activists asked if the local elected officials would consider the creation of a racial equity commission. The leaders who emerged in those conversations were Kristina Michele Martens and Shu-Ling Zhao, young women, African- and Chinese-American respectively. Upon gaining a favorable hearing, these young activists, ably supported by the Chuckanut Health Foundation, conducted a racial equity summit in May 2021, which was attended by more than 200 people.
From that platform, citizens were invited to join a stakeholders group to create a proposal for the racial equity commission. A group of 32 citizens emerged that contained racial, gender, generational and class diversity, and included significant membership from rural parts of the county as well as Bellingham. It probably included very little in the way of ideological diversity (a point I shall return to later). Over the period of one year, the stakeholders’ group met monthly to devise the composition of the commission and the proposed ordinance that the county council approved on Tuesday.
There are two observations that I want to make regarding the threshold reached this week.
First, the murder of George Floyd allowed that the arguments that the Black Lives Matter movement had been making since the killing of Skittles-eating 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 by a white vigilante be heard. The movement exclaimed that police and vigilante killings of Black men were the result of a historically racist structure of institutions — a system of racism that has existed to control Black people in this country since the first slave ship arrived in 1619. Individuals can certainly be racist and engage in racist behavior; but they too are products of conscious institutional structures that cast Black people as inferior and dangerous. Indigenous, Latino and Asian American populations all have their stories of the way that a consciously racist system marginalized them historically and until this day.
Because the system is deemed to be racist, debates swirl among activists as to whether it can be transformed internally via long-term, gritty involvement from within, or must be dismantled and replaced by a new system. In the 1960s people used to call the dismantling of the system “revolution.” And indeed some can be heard using the “r” word today, but usually as a rhetorical device and not the invitation to join their revolutionary party (though the Communist Party and other revolutionary organizations still exist). The prison abolition movement is foremost among those calling for just that: the abolition of mass incarceration due to its disproportionate and deleterious impacts on Black and Brown communities. They call, however, for the creation of innovative ways to deal with crime other than placing people in cages, e.g., and a new system. That would be revolutionary!
Other aspire to transform the system from the inside. The activists who demanded the racial equity commission have chosen this latter path. The stakeholders, myself included, have opted to launch the project from a governmental platform. The stakeholders are private citizens from all over the county, but our work was surrounded by an array of committees (project development team, planning group, working group) which were largely populated by politicians and bureaucrats. Thus, the visioning effort was engulfed from its inception by the system! The challenge will be to garner the sinews to transform that daunting labyrinth from within in ways that take us, resolutely, toward racial equity.
My second observation is that, although the voices decrying the murder of George Floyd were vociferous in 2020, America remains divided between those believing that our institutions are racist and others who believe that racism is primarily an individual trait. During the public comment period on Tuesday, some citizens of color shared that they had immigrated to America, were poor, experienced racism, but were still able to make a good life for themselves. Others (mainly white) said they see potential for the commission to generate more government encroachment on individual freedom, like mask mandates during the height of the pandemic. Conservative council members Kathy Kershner and Ben Elenbaas favored an equity commission that would look at inequitable outcomes across a broad range of demographic groups.
Thus, misgivings about the commission are alive and well in the county. The commission is to be composed of up to 12 representatives from entities like the Indigenous tribes and community of color organizations, and up to 19 members appointed by the county executive and the Bellingham mayor. It can afford opportunities for conservatives to be at the table to hopefully find common ground, or push back in areas where they disagree To his credit, councilman Elenbaas expressed a commitment to getting diversity, equity and inclusion right, but wasn’t sure this format was the best way to approach those themes. I hope he encourages some of his like-minded citizens to apply for appointment to the commission.
The challenge facing those of us who believe in the racial equity commission project is to engage our conservative fellow citizens in the conversation about race. In that way we might take steps toward building Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. “Beloved Community” in our county.
— Contributed by Vernon Damani Johnson
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