By Josh Campbell, CNN
Andrew Do was afraid to play sports his last two years of high school.
“I didn’t want to walk home alone after practices and be harassed, and beat up, and strangled,” he said in an interview with CNN.
After law school, while out running for exercise, he said motorists would throw bottles and batteries at him.
His constant fear: violent racism, “extreme hostility,” and physical assault.
Decades later, the refugee who arrived in the United States from Vietnam in the mid-1970s, is now a Republican member of the powerful Orange County, California, Board of Supervisors, yet continues to face vitriolic racism — even while seated on the dais at public government meetings.
At a Tuesday meeting of the Board of Supervisors in the once-solid Republican stronghold of Orange County, Do put forth a resolution taking a stance similar to many other counties in California and around the nation: declaring racism a public health crisis.
‘The urgent need’
The resolution was unanimously adopted by the board, but was met with contempt by some audience members in attendance, with at least one heard on video yelling an ethnic slur.
During the public comments segment of the meeting, one speaker equated Do’s resolution with critical race theory — an academic concept that seeks to understand and address inequality and racism in the US, which has been maligned by many conservatives.
The Republican supervisor fired back at his critics, telling them, “For those of you who care enough to follow, I am far from the Left…so don’t get on your soap box and preach to me.”
Democrat Doug Chaffee, Chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, co-sponsored Do’s resolution and outlined during the meeting why racism poses such an acute public health crisis.
“Experiencing racism has been associated with increased risk for numerous mental and physical chronic health conditions, like heart disease, cancer, asthma, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetics (sic), and suicide,” Chaffee said. “These health disparities underscore the urgent need to address systemic racism as a root cause of racial and ethnic health inequities and a core element of public health efforts.”
Speaking from his own experience, Do described to the audience how he believed racism impacted one’s psychological development.
More than symbolic
Do told CNN the resolution declaring racism a public health crisis is more than symbolic, and will include a review of county government policies and operations by an ad hoc committee tasked with identifying potential practices of concern.
While he said he does not believe county governance operates under any policies that are inherently racist by design, the board of supervisors will be reviewing whether a “lack of understanding” or “inadvertence on our part may have adverse effect on ethnic communities.”
For example, Do said the review will include looking at the locations of county social services facilities, homeless shelters, and hospitals, to “lower barriers” and ensure underrepresented communities are not being inadvertently denied access.
“[W]e need to expand the way we look at how we deliver services, because there are segments of the population perhaps that we haven’t reached,” he said.
But while Orange County, a historically GOP stronghold that served as the North Star for Ronald Reagan-style conservatism, now has more voters registered as Democrats than Republicans, Do is quick to ridicule what he perceives as overreach by some progressives in expanding government in the name of fighting racism.
“My concern is when we talk about racism, that the topic can be hijacked by people on either end of the spectrum — either to deny that racism exists, or to use as an excuse for big government programs that are not necessarily related to racism,” he told CNN. “Some people hijack that cause to then promote social programs — big government programs — that really are not necessarily related to what we’re talking about here.”
‘Hate feeds off inaction’
In addition to identifying and mitigating possible systemic racism in county government, the Orange County board of supervisors also voted to condemn racist criminal acts against minorities that particularly spiked during the Covid-19 pandemic, writing in the resolution, “the County is deeply alarmed by the recent racially motivated attacks and violence on Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islanders and other communities.”
According to a recent annual report by the Orange County Human Relations Commission, documented hate crimes and related incidents in the county were up 165% in 2021 compared to five years ago.
Orange County’s Republican district attorney, Todd Spitzer, applauded the board’s resolution this week declaring racism a public health crisis, telling CNN in a statement, “No one is born into the world with hate in their heart; hate feeds off inaction and by looking the other way. Here in Orange County, we refuse to look the other way. We refuse to let hate fester and grow and for people to be victimized because of how they look, who they love, or what they believe in.”
Last year, Spitzer announced the creation of a special hate crimes unit staffed with prosecutors and investigators tasked with aggressively charging perpetrators who act “based on a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender.”
‘And you think racism is dead?’
While official county figures have shown an increase in hate crimes since 2017, and the Covid-19 era has been replete with examples of brutal attacks on Asian Americans, Supervisor Do is circumspect when comparing racism in America today to what he experienced growing up as a young Vietnamese refugee.
“America is still the most accepting place in the world,” he says, and sees resolutions like the one he authored as “a step to make us a more perfect union,” quoting America’s founders.
“I have faced racism in many forms,” Do says. “When I first came over, it was more extreme. Now, more lately, it’s more subtle. I believe it’s there, but that’s from a small minority of people that I come into contact with.”
Still, certain people he has come into contact with while executing his official duties in public settings have not at all been subtle in targeting the elected leader and his colleagues in unquestionably racist ways.
In a 2021 board of supervisors public meeting, a member of the audience called Do a “parasite” and said, “I ask you to go the fuck back to Vietnam.”
And just this week, as the board was preparing to vote on Do’s resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, an audience member yelled at Orange County Health Care Agency Director Clayton Chau, telling him to “Go back to China!”
Do quickly came to his colleague’s defense, slamming the man who had hurled the slur as well as those claiming the resolution was unnecessary in Orange County.
“Really, go back to China?” Do said. “And you think racism is dead?”
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CNN’s Devan Cole contributed to this report.