The historic disruption of life and work in America in 2020 has cast a spotlight on the depth and breadth of systemic racism in the Nation and awakened a conviction among the American people that, for the good of both our society and our economy, it must be dismantled. The late Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis said that, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something. You have to do something.” We owe it to his memory to seize the moment.
Racism is a complex system of beliefs and behaviors grounded in the presumed superiority of the white race. These beliefs and practices are conscious and unconscious, personal and institutional, and result in the oppression of people of color. The United States Conference of Mayors finds that institutional and structural racism must be addressed at base levels. To do this, we must engage both the government and the private sector in efforts to dismantle the accumulation and incorporation of long-standing racialized practices. This system of bias across institutions and society, the foundation of systemic racism, gives privileges to white people that result in long-term disadvantages or disparities among other groups, and in disproportionate levels of poverty, unemployment, incarceration, and policing and criminal justice abuses in communities of color.
Passing the midpoint of 2020, our Nation is confronted with the most graphic evidence imaginable of the destructive impact of systemic racism on a modern society. Not long after the at-times uncontrollable novel coronavirus began its deadly sweep through cities and states across the Nation, it became apparent that not all people were equally victimized: Persons of color were experiencing significantly higher rates of hospitalization or death from the virus than whites. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Blacks and Latinos are three times as likely as whites to contract the virus and nearly twice as likely to die as a result. In low-income neighborhoods where Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and essential workers are concentrated, underfunded and understaffed hospitals and other local public health infrastructure may not be equipped to provide the care required to survive an infection.
Beyond the threat to lives posed by the virus was the threat to livelihoods. Advised by trusted public health experts, governors and mayors issued sweeping orders for residents to isolate themselves in their homes and for all nonessential businesses to close. And while the economic shock of measures taken to minimize the spread of the virus was experienced by families and individuals immediately, it was not experienced evenly. Throughout the months of the pandemic, the Black and Latino/Hispanic unemployment rates have been consistently and significantly higher than the white rate. Ironically, a significant number of Blacks who have continued to work are disproportionately found in front-line industrial jobs, retail sales, public transit, trucking and warehouse jobs, postal service, health care, child care, and social services – all requiring close contact with coworkers and the public, and all putting them at higher risk for the virus.
Clearly, the inequities exposed by the coronavirus have their roots in racism. And clearly, we’re not “all in this together.”
In late May, with the deadly virus still spreading across the country, the deaths of several Black men and women at the hands of police officers triggered public protests in cities across the country that drew police into sometimes violent confrontations with protesters. Initially a response to a series of deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police officers, these protests called attention to evidence of systemic racism in policing and criminal justice – Black Americans more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, more likely to be convicted; once convicted, more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences. Black adults are about six times as likely to be incarcerated than whites; Hispanics are three times as likely.
Continuing into the summer, the protests evolved into a nationwide, multi-racial movement calling public attention to the broader underlying race-based and systemic inequities long crippling our society and economy – inequities in health care beginning with birth and continuing through life; educational opportunities: from pre-school through higher education; employment: in hiring, advancement, and income opportunities; housing: where it is available after generations of exclusionary zoning and segregation, where “redlining” makes it unreachable, how it is financed, how it is taxed, whether it is subject to environmental health hazards. Dramatic reflections of the cumulative effect of race-based inequities are found in the Nation’s wealth gap: The Federal Reserve reports that in 2016, mean Black household worth was $138,200, or about 15 percent of white household worth; mean Hispanic household worth, at $191,200, was about 20 percent of white household worth. In terms of life expectancy, white men are living well over four years longer than Black men and white women are outliving Black women by three years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Technology, in particular, has played an outsized role in this Nation’s adaptation to the continuing presence of the coronavirus. It has helped people stay connected to each other and greatly assisted in the transition to working from home. It has supported continued schooling through remote learning and helped health professionals keep hospitals safe by transitioning many in-person doctor visits to virtual visits. For all of these benefits, however, racial disparities remain. The “digital divide,” which has long existed along income and racial lines, continues to limit many children’s ability to learn remotely and many adults’ ability to work from home. Just five years ago, more than one-third of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection. The continued lack of quality broadband or internet access, in addition to discrepancies between wealthier school districts providing tablets and laptops to students and lower-income schools that cannot do this, has exacerbated what is referred to as the “homework gap” in minority communities.
In recent years, cities have contended with the “digital redlining” of lower-income neighborhoods by telecommunications companies delivering high-speed fixed and wireless broadband services. Since 2017, the Federal Communications Commission also has downgraded the definition of “broadband,” is proportionately impacting lower-income and rural communities by allowing access providers to sell a fixed broadband product that is slower and that does not adequately match today’s work-from-home, remote learning, and telehealth needs. Beyond access issues, the technology that public safety and government institutions procure can have dramatic impacts on minority communities. Bias is prevalent in artificial intelligence, with technologies such as facial recognition being unreliable when used in communities of color. Surveillance technology is more likely to be implemented in neighborhoods of color, both commercial and residential, than in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. The technology employed in civic engagement is more likely to yield opinions and feedback from white residents than others.
To tackle systemic racism successfully we must account for its causes and its linkages. Redlining and exclusionary zoning funneled Americans into separate communities and different neighborhoods based largely on race, and structurally directed far fewer resources and opportunities to them. Neighborhoods born of those segregationist policies have seen much lower property tax revenue and, it follows, inadequately funded schools, parks, active transportation, healthcare, and other services and infrastructure. The direct result has been society-level disparities across areas including income and accumulation of wealth, educational attainment, entrepreneurship, safe policing, and broadband access.
The policies producing these disparities were never thrust upon our cities; from their beginnings a century ago, they were pursued by cities, complicit with our federal and state governments and the banking industry. While this makes for a hard mirror to look in today, it is what dismantling systemic racism demands that we do. It also demands our acknowledgement that systemic racism in our cities is as serious a public health crisis as the violence or the pandemic that daily claim so many thousands of our people’s lives.
Our Nation’s strength and vitality lie in the fact that our cities are home to diverse residents from all over the country and all over the globe: it’s why our regional economies are the engines that power the largest economy in the world. Throughout our country’s history, that diversity and dynamism have at times also been attacked, and as mayors we take seriously the need for government (federal, state, and local) to protect our residents and promote inclusion. To this end, The United States Conference of Mayors for decades has taken a strong position in support of civil and human rights, and in opposition to racism and discrimination of all kinds whenever and wherever it occurs.
Tragically, extremism and violent bigotry continue to rear their ugly heads in America and, in recent years, at an alarming rate and scale. We are now witnessing efforts in our states and at the highest levels of our government to gut existing civil rights laws and reduce their enforcement. We have seen an increase in hate violence, xenophobic rhetoric, and discriminatory actions that target Muslims, Jews, African Americans, Latinos, and others. Intolerance, lack of respect for those with differing opinions, and incivility have risen to crisis levels. Damaging rhetoric and a dramatic shift away from collaboration have often left us unable to solve the challenges confronting our communities and our country.
To protect constitutional civil rights and encourage inclusionary practices that support our efforts to grow our cities and local economies in ways that benefit everyone, mayors call on the President and Congress to:
- Promote inclusive, compassionate, and equitable communities and an inclusive, compassionate, and equitable Nation that recognizes, respects, and values all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
- Oppose any policies, actions, or comments that in any way discriminate against people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
- Acknowledge the profound impact of structural and systemic racism on communities of color, and look toward policies that remedy long-standing inequities, including promoting Black male achievement.
- Establish a federal commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery as well as subsequent de jure and de facto discrimination against Black Americans through the present day.
- Work to foster tolerance and prevent hate crimes, with a particular focus on the increasing trend of violence toward individuals and institutions based on faith; and condemn such incidents whenever they do occur.
- Support and work to achieve passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and the implementation of policies that ensure genuine economic equality for women.
- Support LGBTQ rights and work toward guaranteeing them in every city and in the Nation as a whole.
- Oppose violence and discrimination against transgender individuals.
- Revive civility and respect by listening respectfully to people who have different views, supporting efforts to work together across ideological and political lines, and working to rebuild civic trust through civil discourse – particularly during election seasons.
- Consistently and unreservedly enforce the federal Fair Housing Act, which helps local governments address discrimination and segregated housing patterns and take action to remedy past housing discrimination.