Shelby County considers declaring racism a pandemic, causing friction on commission

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County may be close to declaring racism as a pandemic, but the choice of words in the resolution is leading to some choice words between commissioners.

Tami Sawyer was one of eight commissioners who this week sponsored the resolution, which she says acknowledges racism in the health system.

“This will allow us to tap into programming and funding that is addressing the pandemic that racism is,” Sawyer said.

In the end a county commission committee voted in support of the resolution. The full commission will still have to debate this topic again and make a final decision.

But Commissioner Amber Mills had questions.

“Why call it a pandemic? That feels like everyone is racist,” Mills said.

Sawyer responded that the resolution isn’t saying that.

“It’s not saying that individually everybody in Shelby County is racist. It’s saying it colors the vast majority of the interactions, policies, the education and the funding,” Sawyer said.

Still, Mills proposed a different resolution, suggesting they combine hers with the original.

“It’s a resolution deploring expressions and acts of intimidation, harassment, hostility, hate and other acts of xenophobia and bigotry and encouraging open and honest dialogue,” Mills said of her proposal.

Sawyer rejected that suggestion, saying she’s focused on racism as a public health crisis. So is Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter, who said it’s accurate to call racism a “pandemic.”

“To really address the issues of racism we have to be bold enough to explicitly state that as the root cause of many things experienced by people as what was outlined by Commissioner Sawyer,” Haushalter said.

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