The Potluck

Hennepin County Board takes up racism as a public health crisis

By: - June 24, 2020 1:13 am

Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley speaking at a board meeting in March 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

A panel of the Hennepin County Board voted Tuesday to declare racism a public health crisis, despite the objections of two commissioners who wanted more time to examine it.

About a dozen other county boards nationwide have passed similar resolutions in the wake of  George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

Hennepin County Commissioners Angela Conley and Irene Fernando — the first people of color elected to the board, two years ago — introduced the resolution, which was passed by the Administration, Libraries and Budget Committee by a vote of 4-2.

Commissioners Mike Opat and Jeff Johnson voted no after being denied a request for more time to distill and decipher the resolution.

Opat said he wanted more time to get details about the resolution’s clauses, some of which contained directives that he said will cost money and time.

“This is a big move and I think it needs a little more study,” he said. “Some of the language I think is a little troublesome and I don’t know if I can support it exactly as it is.”

Johnson said it’s difficult to talk about race issues in this “very intolerant” climate where if you ask questions, you’re called racist.

“I have real questions about this,” he said. For instance, he questioned what outcomes were sought by the resolution.

“We can do all these things with or without this proclamation,” he said.

Conley said numerous studies have linked racism to worse health outcomes.

“There is a certain urgency that’s needed here,” she said. “This conversation has only been amplified after the murder of George Floyd.”

Fernando, a Filipino American, said her last name was changed during colonization.

“The data is clear, and reducing disparities in silos can only get us so far,” she said.

Johnson said if forced to vote today, he’d vote no, saying he can’t remember a time in his more than a decade on the board when commissioners weren’t granted more time. Opat agreed, saying he’d also vote no even though he’d likely be called racist for it.

“The majority will rule today,” he said.

Marion Greene, chairwoman of the County Board, disagreed, saying there was precedent to acting swiftly. She supported the resolution, saying it’s time to own it and name it. “Racism was a pandemic before the pandemic hit,” she said.

The resolution was supported by residents who testified about fearing for their lives, including a Black mother of two who said people have been “haunted and taunted” by white nationalists in recent weeks.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.