A pointed attack on inequity

“Throughout the history of the United States, public officials have used the rule of law to deny equal opportunities to African Americans.”

Strong language, almost shocking in its clarity.  It’s how Elaine Gross of ERASE Racism begins her January “Message from the President.”

ERASE Racism is a regional organization (based in Nassau County on Long Island, NY) that leads public policy advocacy campaigns to promote racial equity in areas such as housing, community development, public school education and public health.

Its M.O. is to work directly against the formal, legalized barriers to equity and the disparate impacts of seemingly benign policies and actions.  If public officials have used the rule of law to deny equal opportunities to African Americans, as her introductory statement charges, one must direct efforts to re-design the rules of law to be more equitable.  Sometimes the problem is badly conceived law, other times it’s badly implemented law enforcement, but the two together have led to wide disparities in housing, community development, public school education, and public health.

Working with data and the power of persuasion, “we expose forms of racial discrimination and advocate for laws and policies that help eliminate racial disparities,”  Ms. Gross says.

Three important victories:

Through its participation in a governor-appointed Regional Economic Development Council, ERASE Racism was a leader in  inserting policy language that “increases the diversity of Long Island housing stock by producing affordable non-age restricted rental housing, affirmatively marketed, and without residency requirements.”

Its research report, “Long Island Fair Housing: A State of Inequity,” along with a press conference and coverage from Newsday, Long Island’s daily newspaper, educated a largely-surprised Long Island audience on the extent of housing segregation throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties.  Momentum was created and co-operation gained  from Nassau county leadership at the highest levels, resulting in  new “fair housing” laws that provide an administrative enforcement system and strong civil penalties for violations.

In marking the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Supreme Court school desegregation case, ERASE Racism brought together local colleges and universities, developed a conference and monograph, “Brown v. Board of Education: The Unfinished Agenda,” which attracted over 600 people.  It increasingly engages those in the region about the need for  structural changes in the public education system.  One current project: developing an index to monitor disparities on the input side of public education, such as disparate college readiness curriculum, disparate teacher quality, and disparate levels of poverty, all of which in turn correlate with disparate student outcomes.

In discussing these with me, Ms. Gross concluded with these important lessons. “It’s very easy to miss the mark in addressing structural impediments to equity if one is not looking very specifically at race.  One can substitute the language of economic disparities, or talk of the benefits of diversity, but one still has to look at the racial equity impact of policy decisions.  And in doing that one has to be straightforward and persistent.  It’s not only the work that gets you into headlines that’s important, it’s laying the groundwork, building the relationships, connecting with people who can do the heavy lifting that’s important.  And having funders that recognize the value of these steps.”

February 3, 2012 / Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.