A long-awaited report released by the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity calls for the city of Rochester and Monroe County to address deeply embedded practices and conditions in local government and other institutions that have long worked systemically against people of color.
Jointly authorized last year by Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, the RASE Commission worked for more than six months on the report, which it titles “No Time for Excuses: It’s Time for Action.”
The report—more than 250 pages—paints a detailed picture of underlying conditions that it says perpetuate racial inequity. Those conditions have been baked into the area’s governmental structures and institutions, it maintains.
The report’s findings are a result of work done by the RASE Commission’s 21 members, three co-chairs and 160 volunteers.
In addition to analyzing local statutes and procedures, working groups of commission members and volunteers took steps like going into the community on bus tours of city neighborhoods, conducting virtual town halls and Facebook live streams, sending out surveys and otherwise interviewing residents.
“The entire county of Monroe has a racial problem, one that is not contained within its largest municipality, Rochester. And it is a problem that must be fixed,” state commission co-chairs William Johnson Jr., Arlene Bayo Santiago and Muhammed Shafiq in a letter to Warren and Bello.
Johnson is a former Rochester mayor. Santiago is ESL Federal Credit Union general counsel, and Shafiq is executive director of Nazareth College’s Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue.
“Structural racism exists across every examined sector and system and persists because of policies and practices that do not work for the benefit of (people of color),” the commission found.
Local residents of color are underrepresented in the ranks of homeowners, overrepresented in the criminal justice system, are on average in poorer health than the general population and are overrepresented among the ranks of low-wage workers, the report states. While such observations are hardly new, the commission calls on the city and county governments to take specific actions to address such inequities.
Here are some specific steps the report suggests the city and county take:
■ establishment of a $15-an-hour minimum wage for city and county employees;
■ creation of a locally developed process to certify minority- and woman-owned businesses and connect them to lenders that would supplant what the commission found to be a “lengthy and cumbersome state process”;
■ a redesign of local civil service functions to better accommodate minority applicants and employees;
■ creation of fully funded alternatives to police such as crisis intervention specialists and mediators;
■ creation of new diversion programs that would provide mentoring and counseling to youths enmeshed in the criminal justice system; and
■ redesign of child-protective and foster-care service to do more to keep children in the system with their families.
The report also calls for zoning and planning changes that the commission believes would help ensure better health outcomes for people of color, who generally suffer higher rates of chronic ills like high blood pressure and diabetes than the general population.
In a statement released along with the report, Bello and Warren express willingness to act on the commission’s recommendations.
Pronouncing herself “pleased with the work of the RASE Commission so far and grateful for the leadership and guidance of its co-chairs,” Warren says her administration is “with the commission and our community partners to implement these recommendations.”
“This work is long overdue, and it is time to eliminate barriers that unfairly hold people back and create disproportionate outcomes for our Black and Brown citizens,” Bello says. “Using the RASE Commission’s report as a blueprint, we will ensure Monroe County is a community of diversity, respect and inclusion.”
How easy it might be for the local governments to take steps called for or follow through on the report’s recommendations remains to be seen. While no city or county ordinances directly ensure racist outcomes, the report notes, some fixes could conflict with state or federal requirements. Some policing and criminal reforms called for by the commission could meet with resistance from police unions. Currently, in Rochester, legal challenges by the Rochester Police Department’s union have at least temporarily reined in the newly established Police Accountability Board.
And laws or regulations can do only so much to address society’s racist underpinnings, the report acknowledges. New training and education efforts will also be needed. The report goes into some detail regarding police responses to demonstrations in the wake of the death of Daniel Prude last year that appear to have at least at times exacerbated tensions between police and demonstrators.
In light of the RASE Commission’s findings, the region has little choice but to follow through, commission co-chair Johnson believes.
“We have arrived at a moment of reckoning on the issue of race and the manifestation of racism in the greater Rochester community and across this nation,” he says. “The evidence of disparity, inequity and exclusion, based on race, gender and income, is too blatant for anyone to ignore any longer.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.