‘The straw that broken the camel’s back’: Lynnwood leaders discuss ways to address racial inequities worsened by COVID

Lynnwood Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission Chair Naz Lashgari.

The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately hit communities of color, adding to the racial inequities that have impacted those communities for generations. That was the message shared during a community forum sponsored last month by Lynnwood city staff and equity leaders, who discussed how the city can work to address long-standing systemic racism.

Earlier this year, staff and the city’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Commission held a listening session inviting people of color to offer input on how to make Lynnwood more equitable. During the Sept. 15 forum, equity leaders discussed how long-standing systematic health and social policies have made communities of color more susceptible to COVID-19. The forum also included an overall discussion regarding institutionalized racism and the impacts it’s had on people of color.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is increasing evidence that some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. DEI Chair Naz Lashgari said the disparities are a result of economic inequity that stems from institutionalized racism, which often keeps people of color at a disadvantage.

“It all comes down to economic disparities,” she said. “I think what has been at the root of this institutionalized racism, which has affected so many communities of color, is economically holding people of color back and it’s with economic equity that we can hope at least to move forward.”

However, Lashgari said she believes institutionalized racism can be dismantled as easily as it was implemented. She also praised the city’s elected officials for “speaking truth to power” and working to make Lynnwood more equitable. 

“I think that we are moving in that direction and I’m hoping that we could make a little bit of a difference and (that’s what) these meetings are about,” she said.

One way city staff has been working to combat systemic racism is through training. During the forum, DEI Commissioner Jared Bigalo said the city has been implementing bias training with managers and directors in city departments, which includes classes on the role of government in advancing racial equity. He added that the city is also considering including the DEI commission’s input in the staff’s hiring process.

During the forum, city spokesperson Julie Moore said inequities in social determinants of health — the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age — have been one of the primary causes for the health disparities impacting communities of color. Discrimination, access to health care and housing, a person’s occupation, education and income, and wealth gaps are some of the inequities and social determinants that put racial and ethnic groups at a higher risk for COVID 19, she said.

Citing data from the CDC, Moore said people of color are statistically more likely than white people to be hospitalized with, and die, from COVID-19. In Washington, Latinos make up 13% of the state’s population, but account for 42% of confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases. Conversely, Moore said 68% of Washingtonians are white, but only account for 38% of the state’s confirmed or probable cases.

“That is a major disparity we’re seeing for our Latino population,” she said.

To provide support during the pandemic, the city used federal CARES Act funds to create two relief programs aimed at helping residents cover the cost of rent and mortgages and to help local business owners. The city partnered with a local nonprofit organization, the Communities of Color Coalition (C3), to assist in distributing the funds for rental assistance. Since, C3 has approved 177 applications and awarded $143,000 to Lynnwood residents. According to Moore, 34% of the fund’s recipients were Latino.

The CDC has also released information about how the pandemic has impacted people’s mental health.

Lynnwood Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commissioner Jared Bigalow.

In a recent poll, 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. Moore also said young people, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid caregivers were reported to have disproportionately worse problems with mental health and substance abuse and had seriously considered suicide within the last 30 days.

“When mentioning suicide prevention, it’s not just addressing people who are in crisis,” Moore said. “We want to think of it in terms of the social determinants of health, so we want to think about food security, economic job security, destigmatizing mental illness, housing affordability, community engagement and parenting skills.”

Regarding inequities in housing access, DEI Commissioner Otmane Riad said COVID-19 has only made things worse for communities of color. 

“This is not just because of COVID-19,” he said. “COVID-19 was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Before COVID, Riad said, the government had a history of enacting laws making it easier for white people to own homes. For instance, the Federal Housing Administration created a risk rating system based on which neighborhoods were safe for federally backed loans. Black neighborhoods, Raid said, were deemed risky and were mapped with red ink – a practice that became known as redlining.

Additionally, Riad said that the G.I. Bill — which was meant to help post-World War II military veterans become homeowners — became inaccessible to more than one million Black veterans.

“As one historian put it, ‘There’s no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in post-World War II American than the G.I. Bill,’” he said.

Riad said other government policies put in place to keep communities at a disadvantage included vagrancy laws following the slaves’ emancipation, Jim Crow laws, and the war on drugs.

“All these factors and more really forced Black communities to prevent them from getting access to housing,” he said. “Especially owning houses and therefore (Black families) don’t have the wealth (and) resources to get a step ahead and compete with white families.”

Accessing housing is also particularly difficult for immigrants new to the country, Riad said. If immigrants moved to the U.S. with no help, even getting an apartment — which often requires having a credit history — could be impossible, he said. With other factors — like language barriers — in place, many immigrants become isolated in their own racial or ethnic communities, Riad said. 

“Unfortunately, it tends to be more isolating, so they isolate themselves to the community they belong to and the only information they get is what they get from the community,” he said.

According to Riad, Lynnwood leaders have been working to bridge the gap between city information and resources and communities of color.

Following the briefing, community members were invited to speak and ask questions. Doug, a Lynnwood resident who did not give his last name, asked what the city is doing to address racial disparities in its hiring process.

In response, HR Director Evan Chin referred to the implicit bias training managers and department directors undergo to learn about how biases might play into hiring decisions.

“Whether they’re reviewing resumes or they’re doing interviews, we’re trying to have them pause and try and set aside any biases they might have, recognize that they have biases to begin with and look at strategies to lessen those as they’re going through the hiring process,” he said.

During his remarks, former DEI Commissioner John Waters spoke about how racial bias in developing suburbs has kept out people of color. By placing their properties at a higher market value, Waters said suburbs were able to provide better schools through higher property taxes. This is in contrast to the inner city, where there are more rental properties and fewer property owners.

Waters also said there has been a history of disinvestments in minority and women-owned businesses, which often keeps minority groups from improving their communities.

“So what you get is this cycle of disinvestment in black businesses, disinvestment in women- own businesses, disinvestment in Hispanic-owned businesses that then aren’t able to support the community that is around them, and what you have is a lot of disinvestment in the people themselves,” he said.

Waters ended his comments by saying the best way people of color can invest in their community is to run for public office and to get involved in their city’s decision-making processes.

“Invest in your community by investing in the ability to run for offices and commissions,” he said.

–By Cody Sexton

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