On Dec. 28, members marched from Foley Square to the Office of the City Clerk and delivered its final report. Credit: Alexander J. Clark. Contributed Photo

The New York City Racial Justice Commission (RJC) put out its final report last week outlining three ballot proposals intended to dismantle structural racism in the city’s constitution. Though, some incoming city council members are seeing it as little more than a “symbolic gesture.”

“While the Racial Justice Commission was empowered as a charter revision commission, the Commission took seriously its mandate to uproot structural racism at its core—which involved an examination of not only the New York City Charter but also the broader patterns of inequity in our city,” said Anusha Venkataraman, executive director of the RJC.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the formation of the 11-member commission on March 23, 2021: the first of its kind in the nation. In the past nine months, the commission compiled three ballot proposals based on public community forums and input.

On Dec. 28, members marched from Foley Square to the Office of the City Clerk and delivered its final report.

The first proposal calls for the city charter to add a statement about values and equity that acknowledges past and ongoing “harms” experienced by marginalized groups and individuals. The second proposal establishes a Racial Equity Office, Plan, and
Commission. The third proposal requires the city to develop and report an annual “true cost of living” in New York City aimed at redefining the dreaded ‘affordable for who’ debate.

Jennifer Jones Austin, chair of the RJC, said that measuring the true cost of living “would be a concrete baseline for both capturing how much it costs to survive and thrive, and a tool to inform and programs that help people, especially persons of color who disproportionately experience wage inadequacy.”

Many are strongly in support of the commission’s proposals. Councilmember Mercedes Narcisse applauded the members of the RJC for their diligence and commitment to eradicating structural racism in New York City, and using the charter as the foundation as a means to repair and move forward.

“These carefully considered and constructed initiatives put forth by the RJC must not only be approved, they must also be implemented and fully funded to help eradicate and root out the systemic racism which continues to exist throughout our city’s agencies and institutions,” said Narcisse.

But, at least two city council members seemed less than convinced that the commission’s proposals could accomplish that much.

“I am glad to see these recommended ballot proposals from the Racial Justice Commission, but it is my sincere hope that both City and State do infinitely more to combat racial inequity by investing directly in Black and Brown neighborhoods and resources,” said Councilmember Rita Joseph in District 40 in a statement.

In response, Venkataraman said that there was absolutely more work to do to educate voters on the proposals. She said the commission recommends that the city government reconcile offenses through “deep engagement with communities, clear acknowledgement of harms both past and present, and through employing a reparative frame in decision-making processes whenever possible.”

Venkataraman added that the city should support and advocate for a national reparations program run by the federal government. The case for Black peoples reparations, a system of redress for egregious injustices against enslaved Africans, has been made continuously over the years as a viable way to bridge the racial wealth gap and gained new attention in 2020.

Similar to Joseph, Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan in District 9 said in a statement that the ballot proposals were “a symbolic gesture given white supremacy is literally embedded in the structure of the constitution, the city charter and all laws governing New York City.”

Austin pushed back on that idea saying that the changes the proposals present would hold the government accountable. “Recognizing that structural racism pervades all pillars of our society and is deeply embedded in our nation’s laws, beginning with the United States Constitution, Commission members determined at the outset that equity must be a core expectation, function, and responsibility across all of city government,” said Austin.

Austin explained that if adopted in the city, the commission’s recommendations would attack the root cause of persistent patterns—such as marginalization, wage segregation, over-criminalization, inequities in health and education—that often disproportionately impact low-income communities and people of color.

“Empowered as a charter revision commission, we determined we could not miss the opportunity to put forward proposals to transform the foundation of city government to make equity a central aim and focus, and for which government is accountable,” said Austin. “These proposals are intended to go beyond changing a single city agency’s policy, to changing all of city government to catalyze the sustainable, tangible system’s change our city needs.”
New York City residents still have to vote on the three proposals on Nov. 8, 2022 in the general election. To learn more about the proposals, visit nyc.gov/racialjustice.

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America Corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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