LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously July 21 to establish an antiracist policy for the county.
Acting on a motion authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the lone Black member of the governing body, the board declared that racism is a matter of public health and that eliminating biases from county operations and programs should be a top priority.
Calling the motion “unprecedented” and “historic,” Ridley-Thomas said his proposal is designed to increase efforts to push back on inequality within bureaucracies and hold officials accountable if they fail to uphold antiracist policies.
“One of the goals is to rid the county of what many say is structural racism that manifests itself in law enforcement policies that jail disproportionate numbers of Black people, creates extremes in wealth and poverty and fuels disparities in education, housing, and health care,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Acknowledging that his motion is unlike anything ever presented to the board, Ridley-Thomas said it is “an unusual motion because these are unusual times.”
“This is the first time it will be recorded that the County of L.A. will be engaged in this level of systemic structural reexamination of its governance in the history of the county,” Ridley-Thomas said. “The thrust is essentially that acceptance of the status quo is no longer acceptable.
“I’m no stranger to the business of social change. The call for an anti-racist sensibility and policymaking framework is without precedent in the County of Los Angeles, particularly at the level of the Board of Supervisors.”
Several community members applauded Ridley-Thomas’ efforts.
The Rev. Xavier Thompson, senior pastor of the Southern Missionary Baptist Church and a commissioner on the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said, “The cancer of racism must boldly be confronted and eliminated from every level of government. This clarion call for action and accountability in the pursuit of justice and liberty for an acknowledged oppressed group of people is desperately needed and cannot be denied.”
“Racism, in its myriad forms, is a virus that infects all in it wake,” said Cheryl Grills, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University and past president of the Association of Black Psychologists. “For communities of color, we have ample social science evidence that racism diminishes quality of life and contributes to a host of health problems, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease and diabetes. It is therefore incumbent on all sectors of society, including L.A. County, to eliminate conditions that unfairly advantage some and unfairly disadvantage others.”
Dr. Curley L. Bonds, chief medical officer of the county Department of Mental Health Clinical Operations, said, “Health care disparities research has demonstrated time and time again that racism is lethal for Black people.”
But not everyone was convinced of the motion’s ability to effect change.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, called the anti-racism motion “a meaningless gesture.”
In a statement, Hutchinson said, “The motion by the supervisors that brands racism a public health hazard is no different than similar motions passed in dozens of other counties around the country that have no force of law behind it or represent any real policy change.
“We don’t need more motions and talk about systemic racism in Los Angeles County. We need concrete and immediate action by the supervisors to combat the perilous problem,” Hutchinson said. “That action means providing massive funding, initiatives and a reallocation of resources to combat homelessness, joblessness, health care disparities and a total overhaul of policing and the jail system. These are the problems that hit African-Americans in Los Angeles County the hardest.”
Ridley-Thomas said it is incumbent upon those in authority to begin dismantling systemic racial bias within the entities for which they are responsible.
“It’s no longer sufficient to support diversity and inclusion initiatives,” he said. “The county has made great strides toward addressing and eliminating implicit bias; it is time to advance to the next level. The county as a governing institution is perpetuating structural racism.”
Ridley-Thomas said the county must move to identify and confront explicit institutional racism to set the national standard and become a leader of antiracist policymaking and program implementation.
“It’s not enough to just say racism is bad,” he said. “Change requires change. It’s simply not enough to declare that racism exists and that it’s wrong. The question is what are we going to do about it. This is systemic in nature.”
Ridley-Thomas said the motion is a bit dense in terms of the directive.
“That’s because the intent is to go deep into the bureaucracy, to magnify transparency, and to build more avenues for accountability,” he said. “That’s what this is about. The motion is intended to be disruptive, yet inclusive.”
The motion builds on two previous motions offered by Ridley-Thomas in 2017 and one earlier this year addressing the issue of implicit bias and the issue of cultural competency.
Ridley-Thomas said the mandate is to make change and to make change real. To embolden his claims about racism, he pointed out some uneasy stats.
“We know that in 2017, 27% of the nearly 700 people shot or seriously injured by law enforcement were African American,” Ridley-Thomas said. “In 2018, we know Black women who comprise approximately 9% of L.A. County in L.A. County jails were 30% of those who were being booked. We know this because this information is supplied by the Department of Justice, but you cannot find this data adequately in terms of the resources of the county of Los Angeles itself. That has to change.”
Black people make up about 9% of the population in Los Angeles County, but according to the motion, they also represent:
• 11% of COVID-19 related fatalities.
• Nearly 30% of the overall population in county jails.
• And 34% of the population experiencing homelessness.
“With the backdrop of a global pandemic and add to that a social unrest epidemic, this has touched every corner of the globe,” Ridley-Thomas said. “L.A. County, the largest county in the nation, is no exception.”
Ridley-Thomas’ proposal follows the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, which set off nationwide protests. He said protesters took to the streets in opposition to “structural racism and discrimination, asymmetrical consolidation of power, extreme wealth and income inequity — all of which disproportionately disadvantage Black people.”
Ridley-Thomas’ motion calls for county CEO Sachi Hamai to lead a strategic plan to prioritize physical and mental health, housing, employment, public safety and justice in an equitable way for Black residents and to report her findings within a 60-day period.
Ridley-Thomas said the motion would include the commission of an annual report by an academic entity or research institute that would provide a regular update on the State of Black Los Angeles County with the focus on outcomes for African Americans in health, education employment, public safety, incarceration, housing and homelessness.
“The purpose of such a report is to set a baseline in terms of the data we are seeing across the board for African Americans in these respective areas and to see what progress we are making in the years ahead,” said Ridley-Thomas, who will leave the Board of Supervisors at the end of the year.
Asked what grade he’d give L.A. County for its efforts on systemic racism thus far, Ridley-Thomas said, “I‘m prepared to give L.A. County an “Incomplete.”