WAUSAU, Wis. — A standing-room-only crowd packed a drab courthouse meeting room one recent night and tried to resolve a thorny, yearlong debate over whether Marathon County should declare itself “a community for all.”
The lone Black member of the county board, Supervisor William Harris, stood up and begged his colleagues who opposed the resolution to change their minds.
“I want to feel like I’m a part of this community,’’ he said. “That’s what a lot of our residents are saying. We want to contribute to our community. We want to feel like a part of this community.”
But a fellow board member was just as passionate at the meeting on Thursday in arguing that acknowledging racial disparities is itself a form of racism.
“When we choose to isolate and elevate one group of people over another, that’s discrimination,” said Supervisor Craig McEwen, a retired police officer who is white.
When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis last May, communities and businesses all over the world engaged in a reckoning over social justice, diversity and inclusion. But while scores of other communities adopted new policies and issued proclamations vowing to make progress, the residents of Marathon County, with a population of 135,000 that is 91 percent white, couldn’t agree on what to say.
A year later, they still can’t.
About the only consensus that has emerged is that the prolonged fight over a four-word phrase has only made things worse, ripping at the communal fabric in this central Wisconsin county and amplifying the tensions that had been simmering before Mr. Floyd’s death.
The racial divisiveness that President Donald J. Trump stoked during his four years in the White House endures in the daily life of towns like Wausau, exacerbated by the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of white police officers, and leading to new battles over whether racism is baked into local institutions. Wausau is an old paper mill town now filled with working-class manufacturing workers, medical professionals and people who work in the tourism industry, but the schisms here serve as a window into the ways that opposing views of racial equity have roiled American life.
In the end, the executive committee of the county board rejected the resolution by a 6-to-2 vote on Thursday night, a result that both sides say is worse than never having considered it in the first place.
Advocates say the failure to reach an agreement will serve as a civic black eye and convey the message of an unwelcoming community. Opponents argue the fight has been a waste of time that makes the county look racist when they say it is not.
“I don’t have the same type of confidence or faith in the community like I used to,” said Supervisor Ka Lo, a 39-year-old of Hmong descent who said she had received death threats while pushing for the resolution. “I was born and raised here, and I don’t recognize the community that I grew up in right now.”
The “community for all” story began last summer when a small group of county officials began drafting a resolution they hoped would acknowledge disparities faced by local people of color. The original title, No Place for Hate, was deemed too inflammatory, so it was renamed A Community for All.
After six revisions and countless hours of negotiation and debate, they arrived at a document calling for the county to “achieve racial and ethnic equity to foster cross-cultural understanding and advocate for minority populations.”
For the Black and Hmong populations here, the resolution had given them hope that their fight for inclusion would lead to greater unity. They said the protests that followed Mr. Floyd’s death provided them license to reject the daily indignations they suffer — like on occasion needing the help of white friends to rent an apartment, or having white people in the community assume they are on public assistance.
Like many small American cities, Wausau, the Marathon County seat, has evolved into a regional hospital hub. It is surrounded by small towns and villages, dairy farms and land that produces 95 percent of the nation’s ginseng. The county has long been competitive politically, swinging between Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama before twice backing Mr. Trump.
The 1970 census found Wausau had four Black residents and 76 people listed as “other,” out of a population of nearly 33,000. In 1976, local churches began welcoming the Hmong, refugees from Laos who had aided the American war effort there before fleeing when the United States left Vietnam. The Hmong now make up about 9 percent of Wausau’s population — second only to St. Paul, Minn., by percentage. A statue commemorating the Hmong-American military alliance stands outside the county courthouse.
Among those who proposed the resolution was Supervisor Yee Leng Xiong, the executive director of the Hmong American Center in Wausau.
To older conservative white residents, there hadn’t been any tension over diversity and inclusion in central Wisconsin until the past few years, when a handful of young progressive people of color won county board seats and began demanding more input.
In June 2019, the board for the first time formally recognized Pride Month. A month later, supervisors nearly rescinded the recognition after an outcry from their conservative constituents. This February, it fell to Mr. Harris, 38, a Florida-born lawyer who in 2020 became the first Black member of the county board, to make the case for acknowledging, for the first time, Black History Month. It passed, narrowly.
Mr. Harris was also quick to point out to the board that officials had a history of pushing for rural initiatives like broadband access and health care that mostly benefited white people.
The white board members who represent rural communities did not appreciate the lecture.
“They’re creating strife between people labeling us as racist and privileged because we’re white,” Supervisor Arnold Schlei, a 73-year-old retired veal farmer who has been on the county board for 11 years, said in an interview. “You can’t come around and tell people that work their tails off from daylight to dark and tell them that they got white privilege and they’re racist and they’ve got to treat the Hmongs and the coloreds and the gays better because they’re racist. People are sick of it.”
He and others opposing the resolution argued that to acknowledge disparities faced by people of color would tilt social advantages to their benefit. The word “equity,” which was included in the resolution, served as a trigger for many, who made the false claim that memorializing it as a goal would lead to the county’s taking things from white people to give them to people of color.
Those opposed to the resolution made far-reaching claims about its potential impact. The local Republican Party chairman, Jack Hoogendyk, said the resolution would lead to “the end of private property” and “race-based redistribution of wealth.” Others have argued that there is, in fact, no racism in Marathon County, and even if there was, it’s not the county board’s business to do anything about it.
James Juedes, a dairy farmer who lives on a farm just east of Wausau that has been in his family for 126 years, has been one of the most public opponents of the resolution. He has also organized counterdemonstrations to local Black Lives Matter protests.
In an interview at his farm, Mr. Juedes, 51, said systemic racism “doesn’t exist here” and suggested those pushing the resolution were doing so to benefit themselves financially.
“I have yet to recall any type of racial instances that has been reported in this community that has caused any type of stress,” he said.
La’Tanya Campbell, a 39-year-old Black social worker who was at the meeting last week, related a different experience. Ms. Campbell works as an advocate for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, and said she sometimes had to enlist white colleagues to help clients find apartments to rent in Wausau.
As she campaigned for the resolution, Ms. Campbell said, the subtle racism she had long experienced in Wausau became explicit, including hate mail calling Black people “animals.” She sought therapy to deal with the stress.
“Typically, the racism you experience is behind closed doors, but since I’ve started on this resolution I can’t believe some of the things that I’m hearing,” she said. “You feel unsafe being a woman, I feel unsafe being a Black woman. And doing anti-oppression work, it adds up.”
By the day of the meeting to consider the resolution, few were left undecided.
Some white attendees distributed copies of articles from The Epoch Times, a newspaper that has trafficked in pro-Trump conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. A transgender woman in favor of the resolution wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
Twenty-eight people addressed the board for three minutes each; 18 were against the resolution, and 10 supported it.
Bruce Bohr, a retired engineer, called the resolution a giveaway to the county’s people of color. “Government cannot give anyone someone something without taking it away from someone else,” Mr. Bohr said.
Supervisor E.J. Stark, a retired insurance adjuster, said it would leave the county liable for legal damages “if somebody looks cross-eyed at somebody.”
It fell to the board’s people of color to make the case for it.
Mr. Xiong warned of economic calamity if the board rejected the resolution. “If a resolution does not pass, it could have detrimental effect on our hiring, on our economy and other realms of business,” he said.
And Mr. Harris pleaded with his white colleagues to see people of color as equal citizens. “People of color have come here,” he said. “They want to contribute, they want to be accepted and acknowledged.”
The full county board could reconsider the resolution, but it seems clear it won’t pass. John Robinson, a Community for All supporter who has been on the board on and off since 1974, said after the meeting that there were 14 to 16 votes in favor, out of 38, “on a good day.”
Ms. Lo and Ms. Campbell both said they were contemplating moving away from Wausau to someplace more welcoming to people of color.
But though she believes the dispute over the resolution has added to the community’s political polarization and caused her personal trauma, Ms. Campbell said the fight had been worth the effort.
“If you don’t continue to keep having the conversation and keep pushing for that equity and recognition, nothing changes,” she said in the courthouse lobby after the vote. “So it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. But with my children and my grandchildren, I’m fighting for them, for other people’s children and grandchildren. All our forefathers, if they were to have stopped fighting, we wouldn’t have anything.”