Emma G. Fitzsimmons, New York Times, March 23, 2021
After a year where the pandemic and protests over police brutality underscored New York City’s broad racial inequities, Mayor Bill de Blasio has unveiled a sweeping initiative to examine and remake the City Charter to correct imbalances.
The mayor announced on Tuesday the formation of a Racial Justice Commission that will be empowered to make policy recommendations that he said would be designed to “dismantle structural racism for all New Yorkers.”
The 11-member commission could propose bold policies like a jobs guarantee for all residents, or reparation payments to Black residents. The commission is expected to make its recommendations this year, the last of Mr. de Blasio’s eight years in office; some of the proposals could go before New Yorkers next year as ballot measures.
The idea is modeled after reconciliation commissions in countries like South Africa, Canada and Argentina that have addressed legacies of racism and violence.
The group will seek to make changes through the City Charter, a document that serves as the city’s constitution. Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, said it was the first commission of its kind in the United States.
“We’ve never had a model for actually addressing structural racism, institutional racism,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference. “Identifying it, acknowledging it, formally apologizing for it, weeding it out, eradicating it, making the policy changes, changing the laws.”
The group’s mission statement says it will “seize the transformative potential of this moment in history” to recommend “structural changes and significant policy reforms that will advance racial justice and equity.”
What does that really mean?
Broadly speaking, the commission intends to take “steps toward reparation of harms” that could include a public apology from the city, according to the mayor’s office.
The mayor did not name specific ways that might happen, but members of the commission have supported ideas like baby bonds, a government-funded savings account for every child.
There may be proposals related to police reform and voting changes. The commission could also look broadly at areas of the city that have been impacted by racism, from the inequitable distribution of city parks and bus lanes.
Mr. de Blasio said the commission would identify racism across city agencies and named two examples: diversifying the fire department and making sure the landmarks commission preserved the history of all New Yorkers.
The commission’s chair, Jennifer Jones Austin, the executive director of a major anti-poverty group, said in an interview that the commission would certainly consider reparations as it examines systemic racism.
“We should have conversations about reparations and what that could look like,” she said.
Mr. de Blasio first proposed creating a commission to examine racism last year, as protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others rocked the city. Some activists were disappointed that it took so long for the commission to come together, but city officials said they wanted to get it right and assemble the best group possible.
In December, Mr. de Blasio made a rare apology for his response to the protests against police brutality and said he agreed with a report by a city oversight agency that found the police had badly mishandled the protests.
Ms. Jones Austin, the commission’s chair, said “the devastation that Covid has brought upon low-income communities of color,” and the killings of Mr. Floyd, Ms. Taylor and others, had highlighted racial disparities that can no longer be ignored.
Still, the next mayor will likely have a say in the debate. Several leading candidates running in the Democratic primary in June have proposed their own ideas to help poor New Yorkers, and it remains to be seen if the next mayor will embrace the commission’s recommendations.