A recent chain of emails between Clark County employees mirrored national divisions around race and COVID-19.
On May 7, a county employee shared with members of the county Diversity and Inclusion Committee a Vox article with a headline that read “The whiteness of anti-lockdown protests” (the headline has since been edited). The next day, another employee forwarded it to numerous other staffers in several other county departments.
The article yielded a range of responses throughout the day both supporting and criticizing the article, according to emails obtained through a public records request. Others asked that such topics not be discussed at work.
The article mentioned the fact that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected minority groups. For instance, though data continue to emerge, a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that surveyed 580 patients hospitalized with the virus in March found an outsized number of minority patients.
The article notes, as does the CDC, factors such as a lack of insurance and a higher percentage of essential workers in minority groups.
It also discusses some locations as well as the most common demographic of those protesting in favor of reopening state economies. It noted examples of protests in nonrural areas where some residents make relatively higher incomes — Orange County in California, specifically.
The article claims that, while many of the protesters view the shutdowns as oppressive, they actually are reacting to a perceived loss of power and privilege associated with their race.
Some county employees were enthusiastic about the article.
Within hours after it was shared, three employees expressed interest in joining the committee. One employee added that she was surprised that the county does not offer more conversations and training about diversity, equality and inclusion.
“I think it’s important to see how this virus is affecting all demographics based on socioeconomics and race. I also feel it’s important to help the areas in our community which need the help,” one reply read. “It seems like learning as much as you can is the only way to understand how this virus works and (whom) it affects the most. I believe that would be equality vs. equity.”
Others, however, disapproved.
“I would personally prefer not to receive radical racial propaganda such as this on my county email,” one response read.
At least nine employees complained.
One respondent emailed Interim County Manager Kathleen Otto, saying that she knows friends and colleagues who have had loved ones — not all of whom were people of color — die from COVID-19. The respondent argued that sharing the email violated county policy.
In the hours after the article was forwarded, department heads formulated a response.
In a reply, County Human Resources Director Mande Lawrence said that the article did not promote inclusivity.
“The article was inappropriate on many levels and does not reflect the beliefs of the Human Resources Department or the county as a whole,” Lawrence wrote. “I apologize to each of you for receiving this article on your work email.”
County Code Administration Director Mitch Nickolds said in another email that, “I fully support Mande’s message.”
In an earlier email to a smaller number of employees, Lawrence said the article was aimed at Republicans and called it “highly inflammatory and not suited for the masses without some serious explanations as to interpretation.”
“Not everyone is at the level of interpretation as to what white privilege means and this article does not define that in my opinion,” Lawrence wrote. “We are not going to move the needle by sending out inflammatory articles that have no context or explanation.”