What We’ve Heard

WHAT WE HEARD

From July to September 2021, the Commission conducted the first public engagement period through public input sessions, online surveys, and panel series with thought leaders. The NYC for Racial Justice report reflects input the Commission has received during this period.

Message from the Chair

Dear New Yorkers, 

My fellow commissioners and I are honored to serve on the NYC Racial Justice Commission, and to earnestly begin the work of dismantling structural racism in our city. For reasons we all can appreciate, especially during this time in our nation where the evidence of historical and modern-day racism abounds in every pillar of society, our desire to help advance racial equity is heartfelt. Revising the City’s Charter and reconstituting the city’s foundation provides us all with such an opportunity.

Whereas Commission members are committed to examining the Charter and putting forth ballot proposals that would address, and in time, help overcome racial inequities, we appreciate that our efforts will only be meaningful if they reflect the lives and experiences of those harmed by structural racism. Listening to Black, Indigenous and other persons of color residing in New York share their everyday challenges to survive and thrive under systems that are racist by design or impact has been and will continue to be pivotal in our work.

The Racial Justice Commission Interim Staff Report captures what we have heard thus far from New Yorkers and recaps our process to date. The Commission will use this report as a tool to inform our work in identifying structural solutions to the persistent barriers described herein.

Thank you to all who have participated and whose voices are reflected in this report. Many New Yorkers from across the five boroughs— from Stapleton on Staten Island to Melrose in the Bronx —brought forth their passion in the forms of lessons learned and ideas for broad, bold and structural changes.

Thank you also to the Racial Justice Commission’s Executive Director Anusha Venkataraman and staff, all of whom compiled this report and continue to work tirelessly to help ensure the Commission achieves its aim.

And, finally, a warm welcome to all who are willing to work together toward a better city for all New Yorkers. I hope you will read this report and see yourself in it, and that you will exercise your power to shape what this Commission ultimately puts forth for New Yorkers to vote on in November 2022.

Warmly,

Jennifer Jones Austin
Chair, NYC Racial Justice Commission
CEO and Executive Director, FPWA

Patterns of Inequity

Through the first phase of public input, New Yorkers voiced how structural racism has impacted their lives or their communities as well as their ideas to combat structural racism and make our city more just for everyone.

This section will help readers see the ways that structural racism operates. Racial Justice Commission staff identified patterns in the issues presented by the public and organized them into 6 areas of inequity. With careful inspection of these patterns, we can see the origin of these issues in the structures defining our systems.

Inequity in Quality Services that Promote Social and Emotional Wellbeing

BIPOC New Yorkers talked to the Commission about the lack of access to quality education, health and mental health services, low-income housing, childcare, and more for their communities. These inequities—these unfairnesses—create a real crisis for BIPOC New Yorkers and deepen past injustices.

WHAT WE HEARD

New Yorkers testified about four crises of services, among many:

  1. Lack of quality education for BIPOC; 
  2. Decay of and lack of access to affordable low-income housing; 
  3. Lack of support for early learning foundations; and 
  4. Scarcity of mental health services or coordination of care. 

These inequities, and others, symbolize how BIPOC in particular are deprived of resources.

New Yorkers pointed out that many BIPOC families say they cannot access quality childcare or early schooling in the critical years of a child’s life in the way many white families can. They discussed the difficulty in finding mental health practitioners of color to provide support and help to people most oppressed and who have experienced racial trauma. They criticized education curricula that do not adequately reflect the interests or cultures of our students of color, prepare them to thrive, or build pride in their cultures’ achievements. They discussed the ongoing housing challenges experienced across the city, which has also contributed significantly to a homelessness crisis that has impacted BIPOC families most acutely.

Inaccessibility of services, programs, and staff.

New Yorkers said that even when services exist, they are often unreachable for BIPOC. They may not be available in plain English or other languages; during a crisis, like a pandemic, language access can be life or death. Or, the services offered are not the ones most needed by that particular community. Worse, staff providing services may respond poorly to different cultures, or view clients from BIPOC communities with disrespect. 

Little measurement of racial impacts.

Many speakers pointed out that the City will not fix what it does not measure, questioning why few City agencies or offices are required to collect and report data on the racial impact of their actions or practices. They said the City needs to collect more specific details about ethnic groups to understand the disparities that exist within racial groups, such as among East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian New Yorkers.

‘Race-neutral’ decision-making often discriminates.

Speakers highlighted how, in NYC, the rules or criteria as applied can cause racial discrimination in services without ever mentioning race. For example, the City may use grading criteria or school screening measures that do not honor how BIPOC students learn. Or, how culturally responsive services are harder to obtain if city employers, including local government, use job and licensing criteria that stop People of Color from being hired. These decisions may appear “race-neutral” but actually serve to block BIPOC from accessing quality services.

UNPACKING WHAT WE HEARD

The divide between the haves and the have-nots, despite NYC being home to some of the greatest levels of wealth in the country, does not reflect our values as New Yorkers.

The Commission cannot, and should not try to, create policies addressing each service issue one by one. But it can try to prevent these sorts of gaps from arising or deepening in the future.

Justice requires that people who have been harmed have all the support they need to overcome injustices of history and society.

Inequity Within and Across Neighborhoods that Inhibits Thriving Individuals, Families, and Communities

From our very first public input session on Staten Island, we heard over and over again from New Yorkers that resources and social and environmental burdens are not distributed fairly across neighborhoods. This pattern of inequity shows up as underinvestment in BIPOC places and communities.

Wealthier, whiter communities are often safer and greener, while many BIPOC neighborhoods have less public and green space, are overpoliced, and take on a greater share of the city’s burdensome but necessary facilities. And as our city deals with the extreme effects of climate change, it is still BIPOC, immigrant, and working class neighborhoods that suffer the most. 

WHAT WE HEARD

Resources not distributed equitably.

Many speakers said that government should give neighborhoods funding and resources based on principles of fairness, using equity or justice, rather than equal funding or political trading (including within City Council). For example, they said that schools need to be funded more equitably, that everyone should have access to safe public spaces and accessible transportation, and that our climate resiliency and sustainability efforts must center the most vulnerable. Many speakers proposed making racial equity a formal part of budget decisions. 

Responsibilities not distributed equitably.

Even though the NYC Charter requires that each neighborhood gets its “fair share” of burdens, speakers shared that it has not protected BIPOC communities from taking on more than their fair share of facilities and land uses that are environmental burdens—particularly when interest groups use their connections to the powerful. Speakers told the Commission that wealthier neighborhoods need to take on more burdens or responsibilities to relieve low-income and BIPOC communities of the environmental health issues and other barriers to wellbeing.

Racial equity not prioritized in land use decisions.

We heard that racial justice must be put at the forefront of decision-making around planning, land use, public land, and public space. Speakers told the Commission that they perceive that the City currently makes planning and development decisions based on returns to the private sector, not on principles of racial equity, inclusion, and justice. We heard of the need for impact studies that examine the potential impacts on BIPOC communities, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. We also heard that the City needs to take a more comprehensive approach to city planning. 

Lack of community ownership and control. 

Speakers said that communities deserve a greater say in decisions about public resources and communities should have more opportunities to own land and property as a collective, such as through community land trusts. We heard there are insufficient opportunities for community input on siting of facilities and physical infrastructure. And even where siting must go through Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (“ULURP”), ULURP does not allow communities substantive enough input. Vulnerable communities deserve an opportunity to affect their own fates.

UNPACKING WHAT WE HEARD

Every neighborhood should allow New Yorkers to enjoy public spaces, well-supported schools, and a healthy and clean environment. Yet, this is not the case in our city.

The Commission is examining why our city’s laws have not stopped the unfair deprivation of resources or placing of responsibilities in already overburdened neighborhoods, even where the law reflects the right intent. The laws and political processes (written and unwritten) have allowed predominantly white neighborhoods, which have access to power and money, to have abundant transportation, parks, hospitals, and other amenities, at the expense of other places.

Allowing places to remain unequal benefits the powerful. Our systems marginalize BIPOC communities, and we as New Yorkers need to prove that we will not accept segregation of wellbeing.

Inequities in Work, Advancement, and Wealth Building 

We must acknowledge how our systems of work and wealth continue to prevent many New Yorkers from offering their strengths and talents or from being fully recognized. And we cannot talk about racial equity without discussing financial resources like access to capital or loans.

In NYC, as elsewhere, BIPOC individuals and communities consistently experience inequity in income, wealth, and overall economic security. Nationally, for example, the median white family had $188,000 in wealth in 2019, eight times that of Black families. Racial wealth gaps deepen during crises, and the economic impact of the pandemic continues to devastate BIPOC communities.

WHAT WE HEARD

Inequity in Employment. 

Speakers raised many issues in BIPOC employment. Pay disparity along racial lines, especially as it pertains to Black women, still shapes our workplaces. Work conditions remain unstable for BIPOC workers, who are often in temporary staffing and contract work with less employee protection or job security. Care workers are undervalued. Vulnerable workers are under-protected by law. Our economic conditions keep many BIPOC New Yorkers from good-paying jobs and opportunities, especially for transgender and gender non-conforming People of Color and People of Color with disabilities.

Lack of Economic Mobility.

Many shared that our economic system was not designed to lift people out of pre-existing hardship; instead, the system perpetuates social, educational, and financial barriers. For example, many BIPOC New Yorkers, who are already experiencing wage inequities, are paying for their own job trainings and certificate programs. Speakers also raised the lack of opportunities for BIPOC young adults to build or learn job skills or earn money. They urged the Commission to take action to address the wealth gap that transmits inequity across generations.

Insufficient Preparation for the Future.

Panelists reminded the Commission that the economies of the future will require critical thinking and other knowledge-based skillsets. They reiterated that early foundations must be improved for BIPOC families, including education and childcare, not only to enable parents to pursue careers now, but also to prepare children for the future of work.

Unjust Procurement.

Speakers shared the challenges of the government contracting process, or procurement, for BIPOC businesses and community-based organizations—particularly small businesses owned by Women of Color. This competition for contracts favors already well-resourced and well-connected organizations over smaller community organizations. Many speakers pointed out that community organizations are often the only place BIPOC New Yorkers can receive services that reflect their culture or language and stated that there is not enough support to help these organizations navigate procurement. 

Lack of Access to Capital and Similar Resources.

Without knowing about and being able to access loans or funds, testimony described how BIPOC communities face challenges starting businesses, buying property, or advancing their lives. Speakers shared that banks have frustrated the ability of BIPOC New Yorkers to open bank accounts, access loans, or use banking services by setting income minimums, collateral requirements, and other barriers. This opens BIPOC to predatory financial services, including payday loans. Speakers asked the City to consider developing public financial services, such as a public bank.

UNPACKING WHAT WE HEARD

The Commission is exploring how our city can respect the value of all New Yorkers. Our economic system does not embody the fundamental principle that the worth, talents, and contributions of every New Yorker and community should be valued.

Our society has made many economic decisions that keep BIPOC undervalued. Existing wealth was built on the forced or undervalued labor of many people. NYC government can take steps to reverse the present-day legacies of this historical inequity. While only the federal government has the power to create money, government at all levels can allocate money and direct how money is spent through its policy choices. New York City government is a significant economic driver locally. It is the largest employer in the city. It creates business and economic opportunities. It contracts out many of its roles to businesses and nonprofits in communities. It oversees laws that could protect workers or invest in them.

Marginalization and Over-Criminalization of BIPOC Persons and Communities 

This Commission was imagined as part of a response to the national conversation about police violence, the criminal legal system, and the impact on Black lives. Instances of police misconduct, abuse, and murder are intolerable and have shocked our collective conscience. We can see how enforcement targets BIPOC, immigrant, LGBTQ+ New Yorkers, in everything from marijuana arrests to enforcement of mask mandates. As of June, Black and Latinx New Yorkers are almost 90% of our city’s jail population. Stark racial disparities and dehumanizing treatment are nothing new and have become defining features of our criminal legal system. 

WHAT WE HEARD

Need to reimagine public safety. 

Speakers testified how the system of public “safety” operates on shame, stigma, and isolation —the same factors that create rather than reduce violence in our communities. The Commission heard how involvement with our criminal legal system hinders opportunities and how its effects ripple through families and communities. We heard from our panels and input sessions that we must redefine public safety, and can no longer use police, jail, or separation as the solution to all our social problems. 

Improper focus on punishment instead of care. 

Speakers pointed out that the safest communities do not have the most police; they have the most resources. The services and resources that create personal and family safety—such as safe and secure housing, quality education, mental health services, healthcare, and jobs—are too often not accessible to BIPOC individuals and communities. Many New Yorkers that spoke to us called for more investments in our care infrastructure, rather than police and jails.

Life-long marginalization. 

Panelists described how “collateral consequences” of the criminal legal system burden people for life. The stigma of arrest, incarceration, and separation creates barriers to accessing jobs, housing, and public benefits. Speakers told us that criminal bars and background checks perpetuate the consequences of an already racist system. We heard from New Yorkers who were formerly incarcerated about how the system profoundly harms mental health and how few mental health services are available to those returning home. Additionally, immigration advocates called for agencies to end the transfer of New Yorkers from our local jails to federal immigration authorities for deportation.

Over-criminalization beyond policing.

We heard that these dynamics of criminalization and surveillance are mirrored in our schools, our child welfare system, and within our city agencies. We heard from young New Yorkers that police in schools did not make them feel safer. Students spoke with the Commission about BIPOC youth being disproportionately harmed and punished in our schools, especially Black girls, students with disabilities, and trans and gender non-conforming students. 

Marginalization creating segregation.

Speakers told us of the connection between policing and housing. The Commission heard New Yorkers explain how police treated them differently as soon as they crossed from NYC’s primarily white neighborhoods into its predominantly People of Color neighborhoods. Scholars suggested that the Commissioners should also see policing as a tool that has increased segregation; a tool that marks certain neighborhoods as places that white households should avoid.

Overreliance on violent or adversarial methods.

Some speakers spotlighted the ways they successfully used alternatives to criminalization and prosecution, such as restorative conversation agreements instead of prosecution of young people, or the prevention of violence by using credible messengers from the community. Those who spoke with us emphasized the need to adopt and incorporate restorative justice into our criminal legal system, juvenile justice system, and our schools.

UNPACKING WHAT WE HEARD

It will not be enough for the Commission only to say that policing must be changed. Instead, the Commission is focused on the root of various systems of marginalization and over-criminalization that continue to harm our communities.

Not every New Yorker spoke about criminalization the same way, but their testimonies all highlighted a conflict of values: our society says it values safety, but it prioritizes the marginalization that ultimately undermines safety.

The Commission is examining how the powerful in society use the legal tools of marginalization and criminalization to perpetuate separation and division.

Inequity in Representation and Decision-making

Every day, important choices shape our city, such as: Which laws are most important to write, and who should they apply to? Who gets social services or business subsidies? Where do we put our parks or hospitals, or neighborhood responsibilities like shelters? 

Who makes these decisions in New York City? 

Most New Yorkers are People of Color, and women are the majority, yet decisions in NYC have been dominated by white men. After decades of advocacy and reforms, in 2022 the City will likely have its most diverse elected leadership yet. But communities and vulnerable groups are still often left out of important conversations and decisions. New elected leaders may still be constrained by the inequitable structures they will work within. And leadership in many City agencies is still stratified by race and gender.

WHAT WE HEARD

Lack of community power.

Many speakers testified in favor of giving BIPOC communities greater power in government decision-making. They wanted government to give community members actual co-governing power, and not only go to them for advice. Some spoke about community power in specific decisions, like how the City should use public land, while others spoke about community power more broadly, such as in formulating a budget or in deciding what programs an agency should prioritize.

Failure to prioritize racial equity in city decision-making.

New Yorkers pointed out that the Charter almost never requires the City to specifically consider the race-based harms or benefits of its decisions. Several people asked the Commission to embed racial equity into decision-making processes to better represent the interests of communities. For example, they criticized certain City agencies for making financial potential the priority consideration in their decisions, rather than prioritizing the impact on communities. The Commission also heard examples of major neighborhood and economic development decisions made by agencies where speakers reported that the agencies refused to incorporate racial equity impact analyses.

Lack of representation in government.

Many felt that government decisionmakers do not fully represent the communities they serve. They noted that without enough leadership that comes from and exercises power on behalf of BIPOC communities, government will continue to fail to meet BIPOC needs. In particular, the Commission heard the need to represent youth voices, people with disabilities, trans and gender non-conforming people, and immigrants.

Lack of civic participation.

Speakers highlighted the need to support BIPOC in active participation in their society, their community, and their governance. They called for more education on voting, governing, and activism. They emphasized the importance of art and culture as powerful tools for social change.

UNPACKING WHAT WE HEARD

Justice requires that New Yorkers be represented in the decisions governing their life. New York City, a multicultural center of the world, has a chance to demonstrate that democracy can serve people of all cultures, and not be chained to the legacies of slavery or xenophobia.

This inequity continues to persist because our city’s foundational laws disregard the voices of BIPOC. Even in the existing opportunities to participate, the weight of oppression disempowers BIPOC and prevents true participation. Our system of government relies on communities to advocate in order for change to happen, putting the onus on BIPOC communities to create their own societal solutions without recognizing how difficult that is when daily needs are not met. The Racial Justice Commission seeks to strengthen our democracy and start to redesign the foundations of decision-making.

Enforcement and Accountability of Government and Entities

The fight for racial justice is a fight for accountability. How do we ensure that the City can effectively address and repair wrongs, whether of the past, present, or future? 

In a fair city, the powerful would be as accountable as the vulnerable. Yet, the Commission listened to New Yorkers say repeatedly that city agencies and other people in power are not always held accountable for wrongdoing. 

WHAT WE HEARD

Laws to protect against discrimination do not work well enough. 

New Yorkers spoke about systemic discrimination against BIPOC, not just based on race, but also on disability, gender, gender identity, criminal history, source of income, immigration status, and more. But many of our anti-discrimination laws were not designed to protect New Yorkers against the effects of systemic discrimination. These laws rarely protect people without proof of someone’s intent to discriminate. However, systemic racism works by creating unfair outcomes even without any individual’s intention.

Need for stronger enforcement of institutions.

People stated that the City’s existing anti-discrimination agencies would be more effective with additional authority and money. Additionally, those agencies have limited legal power against City entities and are sometimes lacking in genuine enforcement authority. 

Lack of access to legal services. 

The City pays for legal services for many New Yorkers, but the Commission heard about gaps in access to legal representation. Without legal services, BIPOC have a hard time defending their rights and holding government or private entities accountable. This was highlighted as particularly true for BIPOC New Yorkers facing eviction, deportation, or debt collectors. 

Communities’ demands often remain unmet.

Some speakers voiced that the City may listen to community demands but when other projects become priority, the City may fail to meet those community demands or follow through. As another example from panelists of how community demands go unmet: according to speakers, when developers make promises to communities in order to demonstrate community approval to the City, those communities are later unable to get help from the City when those developers break their promises.

Lack of transparency or accountability in addressing community input.

Some noted that the City does seek community input when making plans but would like greater accountability and response to that input. Many speakers said that the City does not always clearly show or communicate how it considered the community’s input— such as when the City makes decisions about the use of public land. While not all community input may align, speakers asked for greater transparency in why and how some input is incorporated or adopted and some isn’t. 

Agency tracking not meaningful.

New Yorkers expressed how without full data, people cannot hold the City accountable. It is hard to prove negative impacts or discriminatory effects, speakers said, because agencies track projects in too many separate places, in too many different ways. 

Lack of accountability for police misconduct.

At every single public input session, the Commission heard the City has not done enough to hold police accountable for abuse. One speaker said NYPD trainings failed to remove racism or white supremacy from policing practices. Many asked the Commission to reform or strengthen the agencies overseeing the police. 

Laws to protect workers’ rights are not strong enough.

New Yorkers spoke about vulnerable workers, such as day laborers and domestic workers, needing stronger protections. Speakers asked the Commission to create stronger laws and enforcement, such as laws better protecting worker safety or stopping employers from stealing wages. 

UNPACKING WHAT WE HEARD

The Commission observed a sense of lost hope from many New Yorkers who want strong protection of rights, and want the City to fervently uphold the rights of BIPOC communities. Many asked whether new laws would matter if they might just be ignored or inconsistently applied? To restore their trust and hope, the Commission must reinforce meaningful accountability.

The Commission is investigating how enforcement around equity can be strengthened, especially as many new laws and policies have increased transparency. If New Yorkers believe accountability is a fundamental value, it is possible for the NYC Charter to provide clear and transparent positive reinforcement for institutions that hold themselves accountable, and real consequences for those that do not. A Charter revision like this may require that oversight bodies, community members, and others have enhanced enforcement powers, as well as expanded protection against retaliation.