The City Council heard a package of eight bills last month highlighting antiracism, education, Black history, diversity, racial equity, and reparations. Some are being met with resistance.
“I feel very passionately about this bill and the other bills that get us to reconcile with the truth, because we sort of forget if we don’t tell our stories,” said Councilmember Nantasha Williams, who heads the Committee on Civil and Human Rights. “That’s how I feel being in this position: that I have an obligation to try to right some of the harms that have been done to Black and indigenous people in New York City.”
Bills Int 1101-2023 from Councilmember Amanda Farías and Int 1118-2023 from Councilmember Williams,both mandate anti-racism training for human services contractors and anti-racial discrimination training for city employees. The trainings are likely to include updated policies and practices designed to combat racism and advance racial equity, and be required at least once a year. According to the city, an “Everybody Matters” diversity training is currently available, but it is optional.
“We’ve learned through the years, even with legislation aimed at outlawing discrimination…that doesn’t change attitudes, beliefs, behaviors. When you have people who are in positions of power, the power differential is significant,” testified Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA) Chief Executive Officer Jennifer Jones Austin, who was in full support of the two bills. “And whether they show up intentionally or intentionally, because racism and bias pervade every pillar of society, they often show up with those in place.”
There is also legislation that calls for the “creation of a truth, healing, and reconciliation process in connection with the city’s historic involvement in slavery” and a task force to consider the impact of that role in past injustices against Black people in New York City.
This aligns with the state’s reparations remedies package passed by the legislature this June. It also examines the impact of slavery throughout the state and subsequent systemic racism against Black people, said Assemblymember Michaelle C. Solages. Before the American Revolution, enslaved Africans accounted for 20% of the population in New York City. New York technically abolished slavery in 1827, but in no way, shape, or form did that end discriminatory and racist practices.
Black Americans in New York, and nationwide, suffered decades of violent “voter suppression, redlining and housing discrimination, biased policing, food apartheid, and disproportionate rates of incarceration” because of these past practices and views, said the state.
Public Advocate (PA) Jumaane Williams sponsored the Int 0934-2023 bill, which requires the Department of Transportation (DOT) to install a plaque near Wall and Pearl Streets in Manhattan to properly mark the site of the state’s first slave market. He initially introduced the bill when he was a councilmember in 2014. He explained at the hearing that under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, a sign was placed near but not at the original location of the slave market.
“It is necessary for our history to be captured accurately,” said PA Williams. “This plaque ensures that every New Yorker and visitor knows the city was built on the backs of the enslaved.” Enslaved African labor from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was used to fuel the city’s economy, clear the lands to create Broadway, build the first city hall, build the Fraunces Tavern, and erect the wall that Wall Street was named after, he said.
“It is very clear—the connection between what is happening in these communities and why some people don’t want this history taught,” he said.
The Int 1150-2023 bill similarly calls for markers for historic sites around the city related to the freedom trail, abolitionist movement, and Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses that helped free thousands of slaves. The bill convenes a task force of public officials and academic and historical scholars to create a walkable tour of these sites.
“It is important for New Yorkers to learn and know these stories and correct the wrongs that resulted from [them]. The only way to move forward with our future is to face the past,” said Councilmember Chi Osse, who chairs the committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations.
Councilmember Williams said that the bill facing the biggest pushback deals with school names and public art, a hot button issue left over from 2020s racial reckoning incited by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The bill, sponsored by Sandy Nurse, would require the Public Design Commission (PDC) to eventually remove works of art on city property that depict a person who owned enslaved people, directly benefited economically from slavery, or participated in systemic crimes against indigenous peoples and slaves. It would also install educational plaques on sidewalks near schools that are named after a person who fits the criteria.
In 2018, a commission formed under de Blasio voted to remove a statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, from Central Park, who performed experimental surgery on enslaved Black women without their consent or anesthesia. Later in 2020, the American Museum of Natural History removed the famed statue of former President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt in Manhattan. The statue showed the former president on horseback while a Native American man and Black man walked on either side below him.
Councilmember Williams said there has been contention about monuments of people like Christopher Columbus. Columbus was an Italian explorer who viciously colonized indigenous islanders in the Caribbean and kicked off the chattel slavery of Africans in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the late 1400s, but he is still beloved by some Italian New Yorkers for his historical contributions.
“Right-wing media picked up on that and that actually seems to be the more controversial bill, which I’m shocked [by],” said Councilmember Williams. “No one’s really said anything about truth, reconciliation, reparations.”
The PDC testified that they are in support of the bill for removing monuments but would require “significantly” more staffing and public outreach to carry out its requirements.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics 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://bit.ly/amnews1.