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What is the Racial Justice Commission? 

The Racial Justice Commission, formed in 2021, is a charter revision commission tasked with examining structural racism within NYC. The Commission examined the City Charter to identify structural barriers facing Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and all People of Color (BIPOC*) in NYC and developed ballot proposals aimed at reducing barriers and promoting racial equity. New Yorkers have the opportunity to vote yes or no on these proposed changes in November 2022. The Commission operates independently from the Mayor’s Office and other agencies.

What is the NYC Charter?

The New York City Charter is the constitution for New York City. The Charter is the document that defines the organization, powers, functions, and essential procedures of city government. In particular, the Charter sets out:

  • Descriptions and responsibilities of the City’s elected officials
  • Key government operations and processes
  • City agencies, their organization, powers, and duties
What is a charter revision commission?

A charter revision commission is a temporarily appointed government body charged with reviewing the entire City Charter and proposing amendments (or changes) that are voted upon by the public in a general election. A charter revision commission can make proposals that change the entire Charter or a specific section. Often, charter revision commissions perform research, speak with experts and community leaders, and conduct public meetings and hearings as they make decisions about what proposed charter changes to put before the public.

The last major revisions to the City Charter were presented to voters in 2019 and included ballot proposals that covered issues ranging from ranked choice voting to land use to police accountability.

What would the ballot proposals do?

There are three proposals to change the City Charter. Each proposal is intended to put equity at the heart of City government. The proposals are meant to lay a new foundation for the purpose of rooting out structural racism within the city government. These proposals are aimed at stopping, preventing, and addressing persistent patterns of inequity, as these patterns are harmful to not only New Yorkers of Color, but to all New Yorkers.

The three proposals would:

  1. Define the City’s core values and acknowledge our history through a guiding statement
  2. Establish a plan, an Office of Racial Equity, and a Commission on Racial Equity to hold city government accountable for racial equity
  3. Measure the true cost of living to recognize that New Yorkers need a standard of dignity to thrive

The Commission’s proposals will appear on New York City voters’ ballots on November 8th, 2022. New Yorkers will decide whether to make these proposals part of our City Charter. 

What is structural racism?

Structural racism is the totality of ways that our society has disadvantaged BIPOC and maintained racial inequities over time. When we talk about structural racism, we are not talking about discriminatory acts of individuals. We are talking about the ways in which racism has become embedded in our laws, institutions, and cultural attitudes. Structural racism could exist even without racists. We know from the very founding of our country that race was used to determine who has power, access, and opportunity and who doesn’t. While our city and country have made tremendous progress in guaranteeing equal treatment under the law no matter your race, little has been done to undo and repair the damage of so many years of racial oppression. Because of longstanding inequality and marginalization, racial disparities exist across almost all facets of city life. We continue to see racial disparities in health, wealth, and other indicators of well-being. Structural racism is the reason why we continue to see racial inequities in our city.

What is racial equity?

Racial equity is a process of eliminating racial disparities while improving outcomes for all. The Commission believes that racial equity requires both vision and work. The Commission’s vision for racial equity is where the worth, talents, and contributions of all people in society are valued and recognized. A racially equitable society is one where race does not determine economic, political, social, or psychological outcomes, as it neither confers privilege nor denies opportunities.

The work of racial equity means closing gaps in policies, practices and resource allocation by prioritizing people and communities who have been historically underserved while improving outcomes for all communities.  

What was the process to make these ballot proposals?

The ballot proposals are based on the input the Racial Justice Commission received from public testimony and input. The Commission held dozens of events and panels to hear directly from thought leaders, advocates, and everyday New Yorkers. We visited every borough to hear New Yorkers speak about what racial justice means to them. The Commission spoke with other cities, city agency experts, community-based organizations, and studied the Charter. Hundreds of people gave testimony to the Commission and an additional 1,250 New Yorkers submitted input online.

The Commission released an interim report in October of 2021 summarizing the input received. Based on public input, the Commission identified six patterns of inequity. After the interim report was released, the Commission engaged in additional public outreach.

Because the Commission was tasked with uprooting structural racism, our approach was to identify structural changes to the City Charter. To do so, Commissioners and staff looked for the “root causes” of patterns of inequity. The Commission did not focus on specific policy reforms or one particular issue, such as housing or police accountability. Rather, we focused on delivering voters a manageable number of proposals that are designed to have the biggest impact across all of city government.

In December 2021, the Commission released its final report, which included the three ballot proposals as well as recommendations for future exploration, called the Roadmap for Racial Justice.

Why focus on race?

The Commission’s work focuses on race because structural racism has been and continues to shape our reality. We cannot address the patterns of racial inequity in our city by ignoring race. For example, centuries of marginalization and oppression have created the racial wealth gap. Research has shown that familial wealth is a major predictor of life outcomes. Research has also shown that race is a major predictor of familial wealth. White families in the U.S. have 700% more wealth than Black families. But it’s not just numbers and statistics. Structural racism has real human costs. The Commission heard directly from countless New Yorkers how structural racism in our city has personally caused pain and suffering in their lives. We cannot ignore this reality. Therefore, the Commission has made it our mission to talk about how structural racism hurts all New Yorkers, especially BIPOC who are most harmed. The Commission’s proposals are meant to stop patterns of racial inequities in New York City. They are NOT meant to give any one racial group special rights or privileges over another. Rather, they are intended to have ALL New Yorkers feel included, respected, and celebrated by their city government. The proposals are designed to guide city government toward ending racial disparities and improving outcomes for all.

While our mission focused on addressing structural racism, the Commission also acknowledges that we do not live single issue lives. As we have made clear, racial justice requires an intersectional lens. Eliminating patterns of inequity caused by sexism, transphobia, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia, colorism, and more is necessary to, and strengthened by, advancing racial justice and equity.

Why is this important?

These proposals to change the Charter are important because New Yorkers get to decide what changes are made to the law. Once changes are voted into the Charter, it is very difficult to undo those laws. In that way, Charter changes are different from an executive order that can be undone by a Mayor.

Currently, while the City Charter is an important roadmap that guides all aspects of government services, it does not ensure equity or fairness in the design or delivery of those services. The Commission’s three proposals are intended to bring city government into alignment with New Yorkers’ values and to put racial equity at the heart of government. The Commission believes that these three proposals would be the strongest and boldest racial equity laws in the country if passed. 

What’s next?

Uprooting structural racism is not a one-time event. The Commission acknowledged at the outset that our efforts alone would not undo over 400 years of persisting harms. We understand that the path to racial justice is long and that it is made of many dynamic parts. Much more work still needs to be done. Therefore, the Commission has created a Roadmap for Racial Justice, outlining the Commission’s top recommendations beyond the ballot proposals to continue making our city more just and racially equitable. The Roadmap has a list of recommendations for further exploration that would build upon the work the Commission’s proposals set in motion. In addition, the Commission received hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas from community members that deserve consideration as we continue this work. Those ideas are also reflected in the Commission’s Final Report.