The Clark County Council heard directly from county residents Wednesday about their experiences with systemic racism.
The council joined the second of three virtual, two-hour listening sessions on systemic racism. Commenters, all of whom registered for the session ahead of time, were posed the same question: “How has systemic racism in Clark County impacted you?”
Roughly 20 people commented during the session, detailing experiences they say they’ve had while working and living in the county. All but one agreed that systemic racism exists.
On June 16, the council unanimously approved a resolution that recognizes systemic racism and injustice in the county.
On June 24, Council Chair Eileen Quiring said during a council time meeting that, “I do not agree that we have systemic racism in our county. Period.” In response to the comment, the local NAACP and LULAC called for Quiring’s resignation. When Quiring declined, the four organizations called for the sessions, which the council unanimously approved.
The first session on July 31 consisted of presentations about systemic racism from NAACP Vancouver, Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens Council 47013, YWCA Clark County and the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program.
Several commenters described what they said was systemic racism in local schools that they or their loved ones have experienced on a regular basis. Issues included a lack of diversity among school staff, disparate rates of student discipline, instances of students being called racial slurs and lack of cultural engagement.
Shanel Jones has four children. Jones said that when her son was attending an unspecified school in the Evergreen school district, her son was repeatedly called the N-word. She added that an administrator did not believe her son’s accounts and suggested that the boy’s older brother could “take care of it” outside of school grounds.
“I had to tell him that he’s never been called the N-word before,” Jones said. “It does something to your whole body when you’re told that.”
Melissa Williams, director of student equity and inclusion at Clark College, said that while people may have good intentions and haven’t created racist policies, people of color still suffer from racist outcomes as a result of those policies or norms.
“What’s most important is the outcomes and experiences of people of color,” Williams said. “When we know that those inequities exist and we refuse or fail to address them, that is racism. It is allowing the system to perpetuate itself because the status quo is racist.”
Edward Esparaza, who lives in Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor, said he has numerous examples of systemic racism that he didn’t feel comfortable sharing publicly.
Esparaza asked councilors to meet with him to walk around his neighborhood and speak further. Councilor Gary Medvigy indicated that he would like to take him up on the offer.
“I don’t feel there can be real understanding if there isn’t interaction with people who don’t have a seat at the table,” Esparaza said. “We’re not asking for a token place at the table, but more for a place of understanding.”
Commenters also offered up other examples, including excessive traffic stops of Black people by local police and homeowner associations disproportionately admonishing families of color.
Shareefah Hoover, chair of the Vancouver NAACP Legal Redress Committee, said that organizers and partners of the Clark County Fair have repeatedly ignored a Confederate flag that appears on the grounds. She also said that marketing for the fair appears to be aimed primarily at white residents.
“Black folks patronize the fair, but you’d be hard-pressed to see any of us employed by the major county attraction.” Hoover said. “My green money pays for this flagship county event, but my brown face is rendered invisible.”
Lili Salazar recalled when a family member was speaking Spanish at a restaurant. Other patrons, believing that he was speaking negatively about them, followed him out of the restaurant and engaged him in a physical confrontation, she said.
Instead of reporting the incident to police, he fled the scene because, due to his immigration status, he feared that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would apprehend him, Salazar said. “If we’re looking at it from a position of equity, there is underreporting in our county.”
Salazar also mentioned that, while local Black Lives Matter demonstrations have included a heavy police presence, other protests in which people have arrived while carrying rifles have not.
Shelly Prothro moved to Clark County after once living in a part of Mississippi known as a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan. She said that the prevalence of racism locally is comparable.
“That should say something to you, OK?” Prothro said. “You’ve got to admit that it’s there, and if you don’t see it, it’s because you’re choosing not to see it.”
Some of the councilors appeared to be taking notes throughout the session. When given the opportunity to speak at the end of the program, four of the five councilors — Medvigy, Julie Olson, John Blom and Temple Lentz — accepted.
“We do have a lot of work to do,” Olson said. “I appreciate the honesty and the candidness of the folks that called in tonight.”
The session was broadcast live and is available for viewing on CVTV.
The final session will take place at 6 p.m. Aug. 26. It will feature the same format as Wednesday’s session, except that while a summary of the discussion will be recorded in writing, it won’t be viewable by the general public. Names of commenters will also not be recorded.