Local NewsHarris County Declares Racism a Public Health Crisis

The resolution, presented by Commissioner Rodney Ellis, asserts that racism is “a root cause of poverty, economic inequality, and health inequities.”
July 1, 2020
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In a 3-2 party-line vote Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners approved a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis and that the county will develop programs to dismantle “systemic racism.”

Presented by Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) the three-page resolution lists thirty-one historical and statistical statements that he attributes to racism. He also asserts that racism is “a root cause of poverty, economic inequality, and health inequities.”

Although the posted agenda for the June 30 public meeting included discussion and action on a potential resolution, according to Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) the actual text was not provided to the members of the commissioners court until an hour and a half before the meeting.

Cagle said that while he supported the portions of the resolution calling for developing partnerships with community organizations, providing data on inequities, and seeking solutions, he could not agree to the “three pages of the stats and statistics and history and other factors.”

“I believe that we need to treat everybody equally, and that we do need to make sure those that have been left behind are brought forward,” said Cagle. “I do support items 3, 4, and 5, on the resolution, especially if we include gender.”

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Ellis replied that he would amend his resolution to include gender.

“How about declare racism and sexism public health crises?” said Ellis.

Along with references to slavery, Ellis cites the Texas Rangers, actions of the pre-Civil War Texas Legislature, and the Homestead Act.

The 1862 Homestead Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln has been lauded for offering land grants to former slaves, women, and immigrants, but the Harris County resolution asserts that the act “gave land to 1.5 million white families while depriving African Americans of those opportunities to accrue generational wealth.”

The resolution also claims that the pro-union Wagner Act of 1935 along with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prevented people of color from accessing higher incomes and safe workplaces since farmers and domestic workers were excluded.

In addition, Ellis’ resolution calls the War on Drugs the “New Jim Crow,” and states that more than 60 percent of people in prison are people of color.

Some health statistics are also included as evidence of racism, such as higher rates of asthma, heart disease mortality, dementia, and maternal and infant mortality among the Black population. The resolution did not mention abortion rates for black infants, which account for 38 percent of all abortions although Blacks make up only about 13 percent of the general population.

Not limited to statistics about the Black experience, Ellis also includes a few references to “Latinx” households and individuals. 

The first portion of the resolution, including the 31 historical and statistical statements, passed with support from County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D), Ellis, and Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Precinct 2).

The second part of Ellis’ proposal, requiring the county analyst to provide a report on racial and gender equity impact assessments around the country within 30 days, passed 4-1 with an amendment from Cagle requesting submission of reports by the Wednesday prior to the next following commissioners court meeting.

During an earlier portion of the 13-hour meeting, commissioners listened to a report from Colette Holt who told the court she found significant race and gender-based disparities in the county’s contracts, and recommended the creation of a new Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program and setting contract award goals to increase contract awards to qualified minority and women-owned businesses.

During that discussion, Cagle noted that contracts and employment awards controlled by the individual commissioners did reflect diversity and that Commissioner Steve Radack’s Precinct 3 contracts had been recognized in 2018 for a 60 percent use of minority or woman-owned businesses.

Radack and Cagle asked what specific departments’ contract awards reflected the disparities Holt identified, but that categorization of the data was not available at the time of the presentation.

Below is a copy of the original resolution submitted by Commissioner Ellis.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.

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