If the municipal government of New York City got a grade right now for its contributions to racial equity, it would probably be a failing grade — though, no worse than any other government.
“I would venture to say, by a racial justice standard, the city is an abject failure as it is,” says Lurie Daniel Favors, attorney and general director of the Medgar Evers College Center for Law and Social Justice.
As a member of the NYC Racial Justice Commission, Daniel Favors has spent the last several months helping to draft a set of three ballot questions that she believes would set the city on the path to improving that grade. She doesn’t expect progress will come quickly or without some missteps along the way — but that’s okay.
“We are currently in a state of perpetuating failure after failure,” Daniel Favors says. “So trying to get it right and perhaps not getting it perfect? I’m okay with that as long as we’re moving from the level of sustained failure because the failures, so long as it’s borne by people who are not white, have always been a baked-in acceptable outcome of any calculus. Thanks to this work, it hopefully can no longer be that way.”
Then-Mayor Bill De Blasio convened the NYC Racial Justice Commission last March, tasking it with drafting revisions to the city charter, which require final approval by voter referendum.
Given the pandemic and local elections that took up a lot of attention over the past year, there haven’t been ideal conditions for public engagement. But after months of public meetings, input sessions and occasionally heated deliberations, the commission submitted its three ballot proposals to the Office of the City Clerk just days before the administration ended at the close of 2021.
New York City voters will get to decide on those ballot questions this fall, in the general election set for November 8.
The first ballot question asks voters for approval to add a preamble to the city charter — a broad statement of values and beliefs like that which opens the U.S. Constitution. New York’s city charter currently doesn’t have a preamble, which came as a surprise to members of the Racial Justice Commission.
The proposed preamble language declares the city to be a “multiracial democracy, and that our diversity is our strength.” It sets goals for the city government such as providing to each New Yorker “a safe, healthy, and sustainable living environment,” “a resilient neighborhood,” “vibrant and welcoming public spaces,” and “resources necessary to prosper economically and build wealth.”
But it also includes language acknowledging “the grave injustices and atrocities that form part of our country’s history, including the forced labor of enslaved Africans, the colonialism that displaced Indigenous people from their lands, the devaluing and underpaying of immigrant workers, and the discrimination, racial segregation, mass incarceration, and other forms of violence and systemic inequity that continue to be experienced by marginalized groups.”
If New York City voters approve the ballot question this fall, such a statement would be enshrined in their city’s charter during a period when some across the country have been trying to silence any such discussion of that history and ongoing oppression.
“I think there’ll be a great deal of reaction against it, and that’s okay,” says J. Phillip Thompson, a member of the commission and previously deputy mayor under the De Blasio administration. “We need to have these conversations. That’s part of what it means to create a more just society. And, you know, it’s about time the city and our country faces up to our past. What we’ve done, the narrative of America, and the narrative of New York has mainly been told by people who are not of color, who have not borne the brunt of the injustices that we’re trying to address.”
The second ballot question, if approved, would create a new Office of Racial Equity and require a citywide racial equity plan as well as agency-by-agency racial equity plans. There would be a requirement for annual reporting on progress or the lack thereof under those plans, and the plans would have to be updated every two years.
There would also be a new Racial Equity Commission consisting of city residents that would weigh in on racial equity plans, serve as a clearinghouse for complaints from the public about agency conduct that may be exacerbating racial equity, and offer recommendations for agencies to address those complaints.
Other local governments across the country have created racial equity offices in recent years, such as Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Maryland’s Montgomery County, or the District of Columbia. They range in function and power, and can evolve or expand over time, especially as racial equity data become more available or accessible.
Tacoma, Washington, established its Office of Equity and Human Rights in 2015. As I previously reported, since 2020, every city council action memo in Tacoma must include the city’s equity index for any neighborhood involving the proposed action, as well as an analysis of how that action might affect the equity index score for that neighborhood or the city as a whole. Similarly, in D.C. since 2021 all local legislation has had to be assessed for racial equity, DCist reported.
The Office of Racial Equity that New Yorkers could approve this fall would have the “power and duty” to establish practices and standards for measuring and reporting racial equity data on the citywide and agency-by-agency level. Everything from each agency’s hiring diversity, wages or promotions policies to its purchasing and procurement from the private sector to its primary functions would be considered under each agency’s racial equity plan. While some goals like pay equity or equitable procurement might be similar across agencies, each agency’s racial equity plan and how it measures progress would be specific to what that particular agency does. The Office of Racial Equity would be tasked with assisting agencies in crafting those plans and updating them every two years.
Commissioners intend annual reporting of racial equity data to help fuel outside organizers to push for continual change over time and institute ways to hold agencies accountable for poor performance on racial equity.
“I would love to see successive generations of activists increase the penalties, increase the teeth, increase the pain that has to be borne by an agency when they do sit in that failure,” Daniel Favors says. “There’s a limit to what we could do with that in this round, but there are more rounds and many of us will still be here.”
The proposed citywide racial equity planning process would align every other year along a timeline pegged to the city’s annual budget process. That’s intentional, Thompson says, as a way of increasing the likelihood that the racial equity planning process can inform how the city spends money every year.
“It will be more work in the beginning, but also, the results will likely be a lot more robust,” Thompson says. “I mean, the city spends a lot of money paying for social services and paying for jails because we didn’t spend enough money actually making sure people had access to services and quality education or year-round opportunities to learn in the first place. I think, at the end of the day, these equity measures will make for more effective spending.”
Thompson, also a professor of urban planning at MIT, counts himself among the small but growing camp of academics, analysts and even some investors who believe a more racially just budget is a more fiscally sound budget.
“I really believe that to be the case, and I want us to rigorously track these programs and our spending so we can actually prove that,” Thompson says.
The Racial Justice Commission did debate whether or not to require the city’s budget be assessed for racial equity impact before passing. But in the end a majority agreed that the challenge of figuring out a methodology for such an assessment, never done before, posed too great a risk to getting the city through the budget process at all. Failure to pass a budget could risk having the state step in to manage the city’s budget.
The third and final ballot initiative from the NYC Racial Justice Commission would mandate the city to create and annually publish a new “cost of living measure” as an alternative to federal poverty measures. It could potentially be used to help set eligibility for public benefits administered by the city. Commissioners heard from many residents and social service providers that the current federal poverty measures don’t accurately reflect the true cost of living in New York, leaving too many families clearly in need but ineligible for public assistance.
“If we do not center on what it truly costs to live in a city such as New York and we rely wholly on antiquated and outdated federal policy measures, than we’re undercounting the needs and experiences of people made vulnerable by structural racism,” says Jennifer Jones Austin, who chairs the NYC Racial Justice Commission and also serves as CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.
The commission’s work isn’t finished. It now has to take on the job of educating voters about the ballot proposals they have the chance to vote on this coming fall. Legally, the commission isn’t allowed to advocate for voters to vote yes or no, it can only educate and explain what the proposals say and why they came up with them.
“Legislation is not always binding in perpetuity,” Jones Austin says. “One legislative body may decide to advance and put into law and practice certain values beliefs but it can be upended and overturned. It is not as easy to overturn when you embed values and beliefs in the structural underpinning of the laws, and that’s what the city charter is.”
The commission recognizes that for these changes to the city charter to mean anything, they would need to start with an acknowledgement of history and an honest assessment of the city’s current status with regard to racial equity — which is not good, to put it mildly.
“The people who live in this city, they know that things are bad,” Thompson says. “It’s not gonna be a surprise to them.”
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.