State of Black New York: Racial Inequities in Social Justice and Civic Engagement
By Lynda Lopez, Marla Diamond and Steve Burns
NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — All this month, we’ve been shining a light on the details of a report on equity and race in New York City.
The New York Urban League’s “State of Black New York” raises significant questions on issues like the economy, technology, social justice and civic engagement.
The year 2020 was one of impassioned activism for racial justice as protesters took to the streets and occupied City Hall Park following the police custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
According to the New York Urban League’s report, Blacks are still over-represented in prisons due to decades of over policing and racial bias, with Black youths making up 63% of the jail population.
Bail reform was one bright spot in a difficult year, said Jullian Harris-Calvin, director of the Greater Justice New York at the Vera Institute of Justice.
“I don’t know that we ever expected that bail reform is going to fix all of the racial injustices,” Harris-Calvin said. “It has been successful in many ways, but it has not fixed all of the problems with racism and inequity in the criminal legal process.”
The Vera Institute’s recently-released Empire State of Incarceration report found jail populations fell significantly in the first half of 2020, but the racial disparities grew.
“That obviously is something that we are not happy about and it was certainly an unintended result in terms of what the data shows,” Harris-Calvin said.
Much of the focus of criminal justice reform is on policing, the trial system and sentencing, said Alexander Horowitz, executive director of New Yorkers United for Justice.
“But where mass incarceration of Black and brown New Yorkers is most pernicious is a place where folks aren’t paying as much attention to, and that’s the back end of the system,” Horowitz said.
He tells Marla Diamond that Black and brown New Yorkers are less likely to be granted parole and when they are, they are 12 times more likely than whites to be jailed on a parole violation.
“We have to talk about who’s being granted parole, and who goes back and why, because if we continue to target Black and brown New Yorkers for reincarceration for non-criminal offenses then we are continuing this horrible legacy of the mass incarceration of Black and brown New Yorkers,” Horowitz said.
The New York Urban League’s report also tackles the question of civic engagement, which our reporter Steve Burns digs into this week.
He spoke with Chi Osse, who has gone from protester to protest leader to now City Council candidate in Brooklyn.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” the 22-year-old said. “I realize that this is bigger than what’s happened in the summer, there’s a lot more to be done, and I’m going to be the one to do it.”
Osse was a ubiquitous sight during the protests last summer, holding court on megaphones and bullhorns across the city.
His announcement came just a few weeks later, channeling his activist energy into local politics.
“We need to bring our voice and our power to the polls,” he said.
At just 22 years old, Osse could represent the new model as we examine how to drive more widespread participation in local and national elections.
The New York Urban League reports voter turnout among African Americans has been trending downward and communities of color were more at risk of being undercounted in the census.
New York’s arcane voting laws also don’t help matters.
“Many New Yorkers would be surprised to know that some states all over the country and even in the south have some more progressive legislation on this front than we have,” said New York State Sen. Zellnor Myrie.
Myrie told WCBS 880 last month that it’s been his mission to take New York from worst to first as chair of the elections committee.
“We think more democracy is better,” Myrie said.
After a test run in 2020, lawmakers are now looking into allowing absentee or mail-in voting without needing a pre-approved excuse first.
“We almost have a culture of absentee voting now, something that very few voters utilized in the past has become one of the main ways that voters have partaken in their democracy,” Myrie said.
New York also enjoyed its first election season with early voting, opening the polls 10 days ahead of Election Day. This year marks the first test for another innovation in the city.
“Ranked choice voting is the process that is going to be used going forward in New York City local primary and special elections,” said Sean Dugar, who is in charge of education and outreach for Rank the Vote NYC.
He tells Burns that giving voters the option to rank their top five candidates instead of just one opens all kinds of civic doors.
“Ranked choice voting forces candidates to no longer talk to a small block of voters in hopes of getting elected, they have to talk to every voter in a district or in a city in order to get not just first choice votes, but second, third, fourth and fifth choice votes which may put them over the top,” Dugar said.
He believes the system levels the playing field and forces candidates to focus on policy rather than personality.
But it hasn’t been without controversy. Members of the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus sued in an attempt to stop ranked choice voting this year claiming the outreach hasn’t been there for communities of color.
Dugar disagrees saying, “We’ve done trainings for community groups, we’ve had elected officials host public training, we’ve had the candidates themselves host public training.”
That injunction was struck down, but those council members are appealing.
On a foundational level, Osse said civics education has been lacking.
“I think we need to start educating the youth about not only how to vote and who your electives are, but also how to run,” Osse said, adding that he hopes to be a trailblazer for others, especially those who might not fit the traditional mold of a politician. “This is such a cliché, but be yourself and speak your truth.”
And to do that, there’s no better time than the present.
“If you have a vision and a voice and you have distaste for what’s happening in your neighborhood, or something next door, on your block, speak up about it and maybe there’s someone else that feels that same way about that issue,” Osse said.
As we end the month looking at the issues of race and equity in our community, we wanted to bring in another one of the candidates for mayor of New York City on the topic.
WCBS 880’s Lynda Lopez spoke to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams about the racial divide in our community and what he believe we need to do about it.
Lopez started the conversation by discussing civic engagement.
On a national level, there was an increase in engagement among Black voters from 1996 to 2016, and then it plummeted that year. In New York, we have our own voter patterns and issues.
Asked about the challenges in getting communities of color engaged in voting, particularly in a mayoral race, Adams said, “First we have to stop believing that engagement is something you could do in a spot way based on the campaigns that are taking place. It must be built into our school system, we must have an aggressive engagement plan while young people can see and understand how resources for their schools equate into who they elect and how they involve themselves civically, and allow them to volunteer and intern in governmental offices.”
He believes it should be part of the overall requirement in schools to understand local government.
Secondly, Adams said we need to speak with local stakeholders.
“We failed to do that and engage people in a language and the cultural norms that they will understand,” Adams said. “Those are two important areas that we can make real changes.”
Campaigning in the middle of a pandemic poses its own challenges, but Adams said he is continuing to engage voters on the ground.
“We have to give out literature to talk about our campaign, I’m still doing that, but this time I’m wrapping it in face masks and I’m giving instructions on how to avoid COVID-19. We’re standing at food pantries and giving out food and talking to people as we hand out food, not to politic, but just to let them know the consistency of delivering service to every day New Yorkers,” Adams said. “And really informing New Yorkers about those benefits that are available to them.”
Lopez also asked Adams about the social and criminal justice statistics laid out in the New York Urban League’s report, which showed that by 1992, Blacks and Latinos made up 92% of the New York state prison population.
Adams, a former police officer, has more experience in policing in the city than his opponents. Other than the changes implemented in the wake of the summer’s protest, Lopez asked him what the city is now not doing to address the problem head on.
“We have to address the problem on three levels. Number one, real crime that takes place in this city happens in our school system. If you don’t educate, you will incarcerate. You have a failing school system, where 65% of Black students don’t meet proficiency. So if you go to Rikers Island and look at the numbers presumably 30% are dyslexic, 80% don’t have their high school diploma or equivalency diploma, 55% have learning disabilities and so really RIkers Island is a reflection of a failed educational system,” Adam said. “We need to go long term by improving our educational system and then we could do short term things such as foster care.”
He said hundreds of young people age out of foster care at 21 and only 12% will graduate for high school, 3% will enroll in college, and are more likely to be victims of crime or participate in crime.
“If we invest only $50 million a year and allow them to age out at 26 they are more likely to be productive citizens, not involve themselves in criminal justice behavior and really live a productive life,” Adams said. “We have to move from a reactive law enforcement plan to a proactive law enforcement plan and prevent crimes.”
Speaking to education, Adams said closing the digital divide is crucial to solving racial inequities.
“We need to engage into a real conversation about how the city gets involved in ensuring high-speed broadband. We can no longer leave it up to the private companies and entities. High speed broadband and access to internet is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity,” Adams said.
Adams said the people of New York City are not getting their money’s worth and he’s most focused on addressing those failures in his bid for mayor.
“They’re doing their job as taxpayers and they’re paying their taxes, government is not doing its job. Our city is dysfunctional and the dysfunctionality is in our agencies and those inefficiencies in our agencies, they’re leading to the inequalities and in many cases the injustices,” Adams said. “That’s why we see the continuation of Black, Brown, immigrant and poor people are constantly staying in systemic poverty and the goal is to get taxpayers’ dollars operating correctly and we do that by having our city and our agencies become more efficient and that’s what the next mayor must do. We can’t continue business as usual in a city that has had the business of locking out too many New Yorkers.”
Adams said he would be a “blue collar mayor” in the spirit of Fiorello LaGuardia. He believes that his life experience of growing up in poverty, working as a dishwasher and living on the verge of homelessness will help him lead the city because he is in a better position to understand what every day New Yorkers are going through.
“I think the next mayor must be a mayor that has gone through a lot so they could help people who are going through a lot,” Adams said. “It’s time for an everyday New Yorker that understands New Yorkers to help us get out of COVID-19.”
Neil A. Carousso produces The 880 Weekly Rewind with Lynda Lopez Friday nights at 7 PM on WCBS Newsradio 880. Listen to this week’s full show on the media player above.