A meeting of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors took a sharp turn when a discussion about a report on the county’s first Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice (ORESJ) became a passionate debate about defining “white supremacy.”

The term was used in the report to describe the “entrenched culture” of Contra Costa County.

At one point, in defending the people contributing to the report and their choice of words, District 5 supervisor Federal Glover — who is African American — said the board must respect people feeling that way, even if it is uncomfortable.

“Uncomfort; I have lived in it for 66 years,” Glover said. “You talk about words matter; just the other day I was told by a police officer that ‘You’re not on the board of supervisors at this moment, so you’re just a n—–.’”

“I think many of us were surprised by that statement. It’s something where I’m hoping it was an ill choice of words.”

Supervisor Candace Andersen

The report was presented to supervisors Tuesday by a commission convened in Feb. 2021 to “develop and facilitate a community listening campaign to inform the priorities and structure of the ORESJ.”

Once the recommendations — which included hiring two co-directors for the department, among others — were presented, District 2 Supervisor Candace Andersen immediately took issue with term “white supremacy,” which was used in the report’s introduction.

“I think many of us were surprised by that statement,” Andersen said. “It’s something where I’m hoping it was an ill choice of words.”

Andersen said she looked the term up in the dictionary and it doesn’t apply to Contra Costa.

“I see white supremist as somebody who is an extremist, who wants to harm other people,” Andersen said. “To me, having that statement is something that is a divisive statement and I just want to make sure that the product that is produced, and that we accept as a board, avoids language such as that, where I’m hopeful that the intent is we’re talking about disparities and balances of services.”

‘An entrenched culture of white supremacy’

The report’s introduction says:

“Contra Costa County is in the unceded Me-wok [sic] and Karkin territories. It is home to many social justice movement leaders, activists, and organizations. There is a rich history of organizing across multiple movements and generations. Contra Costa County is also home to an entrenched culture of white supremacy, including — surveillance, under-resourcing, and exploitation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. This culture is too often felt, expressed, and allowed within and by County governance and departments.”

Read the full report from the Contra Costa Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice. (Image via Contra Costa County)

The next paragraph says: “The pandemic and racial reckoning of 2020 have exposed and amplified the insidiousness of white supremacy and racial inequity within our county’s health, mental health, education, criminal legal, social service, child welfare, and other systems. These events have amplified both the resistance to and demand for radical transformation in our County systems.”

District 3 supervisor Diane Burgis and board chairperson Karen Mitchoff also took exception to the term. Burgis said she didn’t want it to obstruct people from understanding why the BIPOC is necessary.

Mitchoff initially said she wouldn’t vote to receive the report if it included the term “entrenched culture of white supremacy.” She said she feared people would take it out of context.

Mitchoff was also agitated with District 1 Supervisor John Gioia, who helped present the report, saying she was not aware the term was being used until Monday, which she then raised with Gioia the same day.

She pointed out the term wasn’t in the PowerPoint presentation made earlier in the meeting, which she said was “highly suspicious.” Gioia denied having the term taken out of the presentation.

Seeking compromise

Dozens of public speakers spoke for the next two hours, including members of the commission, most defending the inclusion of “white supremists.” Mitchoff admitted after a lunch break she had softened her stance on accepting a report with the term and wanted compromise.

Burgis said she found two distinct definitions of “white supremacy.” The first mentioned those believing the white race is inherently superior to other races as a movement. The other defined it as social, economic and political conditions giving white people advantage.

The board unanimously voted to accept the report with the latter definition inserted parenthetically after the term “white supremacy.”

“A lot of people talked about this being uncomfortable, and I think that’s healthy,” Burgis said.

“Because we’re talking about things that have made some people really uncomfortable for way too long. I think the board has taken action in the past that reflects that we acknowledge harm. We want to take action.”

Because discussion of the ORESJ report took so long, the board pushed discussion on closing the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility to next Tuesday.