Jennifer Jones Austin (247209)

Racism in New York City, as in the rest of America, is embedded in every pillar of our society—from education to housing, healthcare, the arts, labor, the criminal legal system, and more. 

Beginning in the 17th century with the displacement of Indigenous people and the forced labor of enslaved Africans, racism has been foundational to the city’s prosperity. Indeed, New York was founded because of the displacement of the original Lenape tribes from their land. Racialized hierarchy became the justification for these atrocities and subsequent violence, segregation, and disinvestment.

But now, for the first time in our nation’s history, we have a real opportunity to reset the foundations upon which these pillars and their derivative institutions have been erected; we have the agency to determine how our society is shaped going forward. In this past election New Yorkers had the opportunity to vote for racial justice and equity, and vote they did! By an overwhelming majority, the New York City electorate approved three racial justice proposals crafted to promote and advance equity in government functions for those who’ve long been marginalized by oppressive structures, policies and practices.

As the Chair of the NYC Racial Justice Commission, which drafted and presented these proposals to New Yorkers following six months of learning about the lived experiences  of people throughout the city, and which then sought to ensure that all New Yorkers were aware of the proposals and had enough information to make an informed decision about them, I can attest that securing a decisive electoral win was no easy feat. With no template or other municipality to look to for guidance on how to do what had never been done before, Commission members and staff labored tirelessly because they believed structural change as a crucial step in dismantling racism was possible. Yet, I am certain that the work that led to the creation and passage of the ballot measures pales in comparison to the work that lies ahead: actually disrupting and deconstructing the long-standing racist and inequitable systems that have effectively kept people and communities of color disadvantaged for centuries.

Immediately, the New York City Charter (aka constitution) will be revised to include a preamble that declares New York City to be a multiracial democracy where all, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, have the opportunity to thrive. But the work of actualizing these words will take a good while.  Even though all three proposals passed with approximately 70 percent approval or more, indicating a strong desire on the part of New Yorkers to live in a city that is actively anti-racist, letting go of centuries’ old policies and practices that privilege some to the detriment of others will require persistence and patience.

On Election Day, slightly more than two-thirds of the New York City electorate voted to establish an Office of Racial Equity, biennial racial equity plans and public reports, and a commission that would serve as a checks and balances on the City’s progress. This is noteworthy because it is the actions of City officials and New Yorkers that will decide the impact of this revision and determine our fate. This charter change, which must be implemented by 2024, requires all City agencies to: improve racial equity in the design, implementation and impact of their policies, programs and services utilizing disaggregated data, including neighborhood metrics; develop and execute targeted strategies to strengthen communities that have been marginalized; and, measure the extent of their progress in redressing and overcoming disparities. For the first time, all agencies will be aligned in a unified strategy, and the public will be able to assess their effectiveness. New Yorkers staying vigilant will be crucial if we are to realize the potential of this now mandated charter function.

The third racial justice ballot measure, which passed with more than 80 percent of the votes cast must also be implemented beginning in 2024. Its impact will also depend on New Yorkers remaining engaged. Requiring the City to annually calculate the “True Cost of Living” by measuring the actual costs of essential needs, including housing, food, childcare, transportation, and other necessary costs will result in a clearer picture of who is hard pressed to make ends meet, even when working a full-time job. But this data will only be useful if it is utilized by government officials when making decisions about wages, community programming and resources, and funding and eligibility for critical supports for individuals, children and families. The True Cost of Living is intended to help establish a new standard that moves our city towards economic fairness and dignity, but New Yorkers will have to hold government to it.  

In passing these ballot measures New Yorkers made history, but we’re not done. Now, our collective work of reshaping city governance and capturing the promise and potential of these charter revisions begins.

Jennifer Jones Austin, Esq., is the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director at FPWA. Her guest column is sponsored by the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website:

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1 Comment

  1. Attorney Austin:

    The specialization of Justice ACED Academy is to enable Justice (outcome equities) and Freedom (fair access to the nation’s fountains of opportunity) with Peace (sense of security) even in initially unjust, unfair, and unsafe neighborhoods and communities. Our website introduces our interdisciplinary and national team of 12 black scholars and practitioners along with empirical details that illustrate how our policies and practices enable Justice and Freedom with Peace. We would be honored to set up a Zoom session to explore how we might be of assistance to New York City.

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