Hennepin Commissioners want to declare racism a public health crisis

    Hennepin County Commissioners Angela Conley (left) and Irene Fernando speaking at a board meeting in March 2020. Photos by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

    Update: The Hennepin County Board approved the resolution declaring racism a public health crisis on June 30.

    Hennepin County Commissioners Angela Conley and Irene Fernando plan to introduce a resolution on Tuesday declaring racism a public health emergency in the county.

    “We need to be explicit about racism,” Conley said. “We need to say that at the root of the disparities is systemic racism . . . and we need to do it now while this conversation is ripe.”

    Nearly a dozen other counties across the country have passed similar resolutions, many doing so in recent weeks as governments and businesses aim to address racism within their own organizations in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

    Conley and Fernando, the first people of color elected to the seven-member board in 2018, have made addressing Hennepin County’s wide racial inequities a focus. Last year, Conley led the effort to create a Race Equity Advisory Council to help the board address racial disparities.

    The move to declare racism a public health crisis is symbolic, but would also direct the county to consider racial equity in all of its decision making.

    Hennepin County acts as the largest social service agency in the state, overseeing health care, housing assistance, public health, child protection and other human services for hundreds of thousands of residents. The county also faces persistent racial chasms, ranking among the worst places to live for Black and Indigenous people.

    For instance, Black and Indigenous people in Hennepin County — and across the country — have worse health outcomes, higher maternal and infant death rates, higher rates of chronic illnesses, higher rates of homelessness, higher rates of children being taken away from parents, lower educational outcomes, lower incomes and a lower life expectancy.

    “Racism kills people,” Conley said, also citing the current pandemic. Black Hennepin County residents comprise 30% of infections but just 13% of the population, she said.

    Conley and Fernando will introduce the resolution at Tuesday’s Board meeting but chose to announce their intention on Juneteenth, a day long observed by many Black Americans as the holiday commemorating the end of slavery.

    “Today is our Independence Day. It’s a day in which we celebrate ourselves. We celebrate our history, our heritage and we recognize the path that was paved by our ancestors,” she said.“It’s also a reminder that the fight continues.”

    Max Nesterak
    Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.