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Manatee County Commissioners Declare Racism A Public Health Crisis

A man in a suit stands behind a podium with a plexiglass safety screen to read a new proclamation.
Manatee Board of County Commissioners livestream
Manatee County Commissioner Reggie Bellamy's racism proclamation was passed by the board 5-2 at Tuesday's meeting.

Manatee County commissioners say their new "Declaration of Racism as a Public Health Crisis" is the first step in acknowledging and addressing racial disparity.

Manatee County commissioners passed a proclamation Tuesday declaring racism a public health crisis.

More than 100 studies have linked racism to poor health outcomes, and according to the Florida Department of Health, Black residents of the state are disproportionately more likely to die of COVID-19.

Black Americans are also more likely to be overweight or obese and die of heart disease, cancer or stroke.

Reggie Bellamy, the county's only Black commissioner, placed the proclamation on Tuesday's agenda. He said racism is common throughout the county and state.

"I may not be George Floyd, but I have had a knee on the back of my neck for my entire life,” Bellamy said.

Manatee County's declaration includes 11 steps to address racism locally. This includes a commitment to developing policies against discrimination in housing, education, business, employment, criminal justice and more.

Read the full text of the proclamation here.

Two board members, Stephen Jonsson and Vanessa Baugh, voted against it.

Jonsson said he took it as a personal insult against him and his constituents.

“The way I read it, when I interpreted it, it came out as this group here, we're all a bunch of racists, that as leaders in this community, we're not doing a good enough job to help your race and all the diversity that we need,” Johnson said.

Baugh said, “It’s not just about Blacks. It's about Hispanics. It's about every different race in this county.”

But fellow board members pushed back.

“With all due respect to Commissioner Baugh, You totally missed the mark," commission Chair Betsy Benac said. "The point of this whole proclamation was to say out loud that Black people are disproportionately impacted by the health crisis that we are in. And not only that, but all the pre-existing conditions that are disproportionately experienced by Black people.

“Well, of course, all lives matter. That's always the response, right? It totally misses the point. All Black Lives Matter is saying, ‘You need to be aware that we have a different situation.’”

Benac agreed with Jonsson that the language of the proclamation was “harsh,” but argued that’s the point.

“It was a little harsh in some ways. But could I say it was wrong?” Benac asked. “No. I couldn't find a misstatement in the proclamation. What happens with a proclamation going forward? That is going to be up to the next board. But you got to make people aware of the issues before you can do anything about it.”

Commissioner Misty Servia likened the “All Lives Matter” response to a burning house.

“Replace the lives with a house, that ‘All Houses Matter.’ But when that one house is on fire, people are running into that house to help that house.”

Patrick Carnegie, the CEO of MCR Health, a not-for-profit system of more than 40 health care centers in Florida, spoke in favor of the proclamation.

"Facts are facts. There's been systematic racism in this county, in this county for a long, long time, and that's created these disparities in health," Carnegie said." It deals with housing, it deals with jobs, it deals with everything on the spectrum that leads to what we're facing here today."

Dr. Jennifer Bencie, health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, said the good news is that Manatee has gone from the 24th to 17th in the state in terms of health of the county.

“The bad news is unless we address the issues that were presented today by Commissioner Bellamy, we will never become the best in terms of the healthiest county in Florida,” Bencie said.

Most of the public comments supported the proclamation. But despite the multiple studies providing evidence that racism is a social determinant of health, some in the community pushed back against it being a public health emergency.

Michelle Martin, who has been active on the county’s Facebook page in expressing her dismay over the proclamation, called it “militantly political.”

“The county wants to work with BLM to ensure that our policies are written in such a way that we have equity, equitable outcomes across all communities,” Martin said. “That is not your job. Your job is to protect the Constitution of the United States, which is equal opportunity, but not the guarantee of equal outcome. I want to remind you, that is a socialist agenda. Equitable outcomes is a socialist agenda.”

The board was also accused by some people of supporting Black Lives Matters’ platform of defunding the police, a phrase used to mean shifting some resources from law enforcement officers to mental health counselors and other professionals that would respond to non-criminal calls.

But the board actually gave the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office $200,000 more in the budget for diversity training, as Vice Chair Carol Whitmore pointed out.

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