By Natalia Sucre, Research and Writing Librarian
This semester the library will focus its monthly virtual roundtables on the work of the NYC Racial Justice Commission, convened in March 2021 by Mayor de Blasio. The Commision is tasked with creating reforms to the New York City Charter, in its own words, “dismantling structural racism.”
The initiative comes at a time of national reckoning with racial inequity, which has been set in high relief by the COVID-19 pandemic and the June 2020 uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd. Social unrest, violence, protest, violence, a government commissioned report. We have been here before, as Prof. Desi Robinson was quick to point out at the first roundtable discussion of the project on Sept. 20th. For example, in 1968 the Kerner Commission Report pinned the 1967 race riots on white racism and its severe curtailment of housing, educational, and employment opportunities for Black Americans. In the late sixties, President Johnson shelved the report, too searing to act on, and 50 years later, its answers remain tragically on target as a recent book by scholar Jelani Cobb demonstrates.
Hope this Time?
Will the NYC Commission be an instance of taxpayer funds spent on a merely academic exercise, however insightful? Our guest speaker, Harold Miller, Deputy Executive Director of External Affairs for the Commission, provided some reasons to hope not. First, the Commision is on track to produce tangible results in the form of ballot proposals to be voted on in the November 2022 elections. Second, while the timing of the Commission has been criticized, the Commission itself is independent of the current term-limited Mayor and answers only to its own values. Commission members are all leaders of color, prominent in different areas of activism, scholarship, and public service, including, for example, Darrick Hamilton, a scholar and public intellectual doing innovative anti-poverty work and no stranger to MCNY where he has spoken in the past. Third, the Commission’s process of public engagement has been intense: listening sessions in every borough as well as in-depth presentations and panel discussions with community-based groups and experts on topics ranging from economic equity, education, and health to housing. These are available for viewing here and are well worth the time, especially in segments.
The Commission value that shone through the clearest in Mr. Miller’s discussion is a focus on equity as opposed to equality, i.e., an equitable distribution of resources where each gets what they need versus an equal distribution where everyone gets the same, no matter their need. Such a focus and the Commission’s overall framework also inspire hope.
In fact, cautious optimism may go hand in hand with this time of reckoning. Scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor suggests as much in her review of Philadelphia’s Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation, Mayor Kenney’s initiative for an equitable city. Despite Taylor’s disappointment with the weak results of that initiative, she notes how much the conversation on race has changed since the late sixties in the U.S., citing compelling statistics that show most Americans understand racism to be part of the private and public codes shaping our communities and most accept the demand for specific actions to undo such systemic harm. In the next two library roundtables, we will hear from groups advocating for reforms before the Commission and decide for ourselves how much room there is for cautious optimism.