Easton residents defeat resolution declaring racism a public health issue

Photo of Amanda Cuda

EASTON — Elaine O’Keefe isn’t discouraged.

Though town residents voted 1,259 to 761 last week to defeat a resolution to declare racism a public health problem, the Easton resident and health equity advocate said she doesn’t think the discussion of racism and its impact on health is over.

“We have a lot of work to do and a lot of education and outreach to do,” O’Keefe said.

The resolution’s defeat comes months after O’Keefe originally pitched the idea to the Easton Board of Selectman. Having worked in public health for more than 40 years, she said, she’s long been concerned about racial inequities in health. She said the murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota last year and the COVID-19 pandemic — which many experts have said has disproportionately affected people of color — brought the issues to the forefront.

“It was a time when there was a lot of focus on these issues,” O’Keefe said, saying she brought up the idea of the resolution “to stimulate conversation.”

Indeed, many towns and cities in Connecticut have passed their own resolutions, including Bridgeport, New Haven and Old Saybrook.

Easton’s resolution asked the Board of Selectman to “acknowledge that racism is a growing public health concern affecting our town and all of Connecticut.” It also asked officials to, among other things, “promote racial and health equity in policies approved by the Board of Selectmen and enhance educational efforts aimed at understanding, addressing and dismantling racism and how it affects the delivery of health and social services, our educational system, economic development and public safety.”

O’Keefe brought the idea to the Easton Board of Selectman in August, and they unanimously approved a resolution at that time, a move “that caused some acrimony,” said First Selectman David Bindelglass.

The decision to pass the resolution was criticized by many in town, including the group Citizens for Responsible Government. A statement on the group’s website declared that the resolution “promotes the idea that systemic racism — in Easton and elsewhere — is the singular cause of health disparities as well as a long list of other societal problems.”

The group’s president, Sherry Harris, said the resolution is based in “critical race theory,” which she claims is a “divisive and destructive” way to regard race.

“White people of European descent are viewed as oppressors and people of color are viewed as the oppressed, their victims,” she said.

Ultimately, Bindelglass said, enough people were upset by the resolution that it was rescinded and put to a town referendum.

Though she thinks the resolution and the discussion of race are vital, O’Keefe said she didn’t fault the board for rescinding the resolution.

“I understand that there wasn’t enough opportunity to have discussion on it when originally introduced,” she said.

She called the decision to put the resolution to a town-wide referendum “bold,” and both she and Bindelglass said they were disappointed it didn’t pass.

“I was very clear in my support of it and it was unanimously approved,” Bindelglass said.

Still, he said he doesn’t believe the resolution’s defeat is the end of racial discourse in Easton. He pointed out that the town recently also created a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force (of which O’Keefe is an alternate member), and said he hopes they continue to discuss issues related to racial inequality.

O’Keefe said she knows in a largely white town such as Easton, racism might not seem like a pertinent issue.

“The impact of racism isn’t as apparent or as easily felt here,” she said.

But, she said, that doesn’t mean racial inequality can be forgotten or ignored.

“We’re not going to stop doing the work we need to do,” O’Keefe said.