Racism in Thurston County was declared a crisis today, following a unanimous vote from the Board of County Commissioners.
The vote came following many months of heightened activity among activists — across the nation and in Thurston County, specifically — and during a time when issues of equity have taken center stage for local governments and organizations.
A resolution passed by the board pledged to create a plan to diversify representation within county government and create a committee specifically tasked with touting equity issues. According to the resolution, the county manager is tasked with creating an action plan by June 30.
During today’s meeting, County Manager Ramiro Chavez provided sobering statistics that show the average life expectancy of non-white Thurston County residents is below the overall average — in some cases by nearly a decade. The average life expectancy of a Thurston County resident is 81 years, however for a Thurston County resident who is Native American, the average is 72 years. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders’ life expectancy is 73 and for Black residents, it’s 78 years.
Infant mortality rates also differ based on race, said Chavez. While the average infant mortality rate is 4.4 percent, for Hispanic babies in Thurston County it is 4.8 percent and for Black babies it is 9.9 percent.
Twenty-five percent of Thurston County residents are Black, Indigenous and people of color.
“For targets of racism, their families or communities and subsequent generations, systemic racism causes discrimination that impacts all aspects of life, including housing, education, employment and criminal justice,” said Chavez.
During a period of public comment during today’s meeting, 23 people spoke in favor of passing the resolution — including several public officials. During a comment, Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall noted an occurrence earlier in the year, when 377 land covenants were discovered to still contain racially restricted language. In January, the Board of Commissioners, when this development was brought to light, voted to declare such covenants — which declared that certain properties could only be owned by white people — were illegal.
“We will be rolling out a program to provide a really easy way for them to file a modified covenant so we can break that chain of title,” said Hall.
Lacey resident and activist Dr. Thelma Jackson, during a public comment, highlighted these covenants as a piece of racist history, and urged the commissioners to take action on furthering equity issues.
“Don’t let the conversation and dialogue become just another fleeting moment that won’t result in systemic changes,” Jackson said.
Each commissioner also voiced support for the resolution. In a statement, Commissioner Carolina Mejia said: “I’m honestly happy for those who have never experienced racism in their life … but just because you don’t see it or experience it doesn’t mean it’s not happening and that it’s not affecting our residents.”
Commissioner Gary Edwards said he was raised to treat people the way that he would want to be treated.
“It was pretty simple, but we can always do better, and I guess that’s what we’re doing here today,” he said.
Commissioner Tye Menser said the resolution is among one of the most important issues he’s worked on as a commissioner — right up there with climate change and the COVID pandemic.
“This will not be the end of the actions of Thurston County on this topic. There will be follow-through, there will be community engagement, there will be resources dedicated, there will be education and training,” he said.
The county announced eight actions the county and Board of County Commissioners will do to address racism, including: