The NYC Racial Justice Commission released its interim report on Thursday, the first major step in its mandate to fix systemic racism in the city.
Speaking virtually to reporters on Tuesday, Jennifer Jones Austin, the commission’s chairperson, said the report summarized what the commissioners have heard at meetings over the last few months from New Yorkers of color about their experiences of racial injustice and inequity that must change.
The commission was created in the aftermath of protests across the city in 2020 over police brutality -- during a pandemic that laid bare racial inequalities in access to quality health care.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the sweeping initiative in March 2021.
“Our mission is to root out systemic racism across New York City,” the mayor said. “The Racial Justice Commission has the power to put forth permanent, transformative ideas for our government and our city. This moment demands nothing less.”
The 11-person commission has a two-year mandate to use its formal powers of a charter revision commission. That means it has the ability to propose amendments to the NYC Charter, which is the city’s constitution.
Commissioners are tasked with identifying barriers to power, access, and opportunity for people of color and to propose ballot initiatives to remove those barriers to equity. New Yorkers will vote on those proposals in November 2022.
Six patterns of inequality identified
Anusha Venkataraman, the commission’s executive director, said their citywide listening tour identified six patterns of systemic racial inequity.
Those six areas include: (1) inequity in quality services that promote social and emotional well being; (2) inequity in work, advancement and wealth-building; (3) inequity within and across neighborhoods that inhibits thriving individuals, families and communities; (4) marginalization and over criminalization of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or People of Color) persons and communities; (5) inequity in representation and decision making; and (6) enforcement and accountability of government and entities.
At the virtual press conference, Anusha highlighted a few of the “most pressing things we heard.”
Not surprisingly, many people said the city must “reimagine public safety” and focus on criminal justice reform as one of the top issues.
“We consistently heard that even where services exist, they may not be accessible or reachable, especially for BIPOC New Yorkers, in meeting basic needs, such as quality education, and early learning, safe and secure housing, health and mental health services,” she stated.
Another urgent concern was in the wealth inequality bucket. Across the city, people complained about inequality in access to capital and the City’s procurement processes for businesses owned by people of color, particularly women of color, and immigrants.
At the meeting, Commissioner Chris Kui, who noted that he has worked 35 years in the Asian immigrant community, pointed to another common theme he heard during the listening tour.
He said Asian-Americans who worked in corporations or government agencies stated that they were too often overlooked for leadership positions in their organizations. Instead, they are limited to working technology jobs within their agencies.
Don’t look for numerous ballot measures that address every issue. What’s expected are ballot initiatives that capture the essence of the testimony that the commission heard and examined, Austin said.
Away from the commission, the chairperson is the CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. Austin is also the daughter of the late legendary Bed-Stuy preacher the Rev. William A. Jones, who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“This (interim) report is the first step in synthesizing what we've heard, and the final report will reflect our findings as well as the balance of proposals that will be coming out in December,” she explained.
Henry Garrido, vice chair of the commission, said the ideas they will propose aren’t intended to sit on someone’s shelf gathering dust.
“We want to see structural change that is actionable in the ways that we can go about them and the way we hold agencies and individuals accountable in those ideas,” he stated.
Looking ahead, Austin said the commission has a couple more months to gather testimony.
“We want to make sure that the voices, the needs, the experiences of all New Yorkers who've experienced racism--past and present and likely in the future--are heard,” she stated. “And that their voices that reflect their experiences are incorporated into our work.”