|Ending racism in
A conversation with former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson
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|How American cities
can overcome racism
June 2020: The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 underscores how race lies at the heart of political, economic, and social concerns in the United States. The resulting protests and civic unrest in over 400 American cities constitute a stunning demand that the US honor its legal commitment to opportunity for all and finally end patterns of racial inequality.
William A. Johnson, Jr., Mayor of Rochester (NY) from 1994 to 2005, has spent a lifetime confronting the complex and disturbing reality of contemporary racism in America. Bill Johnson was born and raised in the segregated American South. He became a leader of the Urban Leagues in Flint, Michigan and Rochester, New York, organizations dedicated to economic and social justice, and, in 1994, the first African-American Mayor of Rochester.
As Mayor, Bill Johnson repaired frayed relationships between the police and minority communities and instituted one of the first community policing programs in the US. He also led what was arguably the most radical and successful citizen empowerment program ever established in an American city. Rochester’s Neighbors Building Neighborhoods program engaged people who traditionally were not involved in community and economic development. NBN is credited with regenerating even the poorest neighborhoods and became a national model for economic and social empowerment.
Upon retirement as Mayor in 2005, Bill Johnson faced an indignity similar to that of other African-American elected officials in the US who instituted programs and policies that upended long-established power relationships. His white successor, a former police chief, dismantled Johnson’s signature accomplishments, most notably ending Rochester’s citizen empowerment program and replacing community policing with an aggressive “zero tolerance” policing strategy.
In recent years, Bill Johnson has served as an independent consultant to several American cities, helping them bridge community divisions resulting from racial discrimination and inequality.
In conversation with
William A. Johnson, Jr. discussed with City Mayors how the United States and US cities can overcome the legacy of racism.
City Mayors: It seems that, in the US, African-Americans are first “read” as black, and this often reflects the hierarchies of the majority society.
William A Johnson: It reflects the fact that there are people in power who defend a certain worldview that makes their lives easy and comfortable. Let me give you a couple of examples. The billionaires who own National Football League teams were willing to pay quarterback Colin Kaepernick millions of dollars each year to throw a football. But as soon as he knelt in protest against police violence during the national anthem that is played before the start of each game, he was kicked out of the league. He had stepped out of his lane. The implicit message from the owners was that he had been on the right path to career and life success, but had forfeited his chance. He had challenged received wisdom, and the penalty was severe.
Now Colin Kaepernick can continue to make a living from his endorsements from Nike and other advertisers. But average members of minority communities in America feel as if the finger is always pointing at them, there’s always something they didn’t do right, and there’s always a disproportionate consequence. If an African-American male steps out of the lane, he too frequently ends up in the criminal justice system. At a certain point, members of the minority community begin to feel there’s nothing more they can do for themselves; whatever they say or do will be construed as wrong in some way. Some people will resist out of frustration or to preserve a sense of their own dignity; inevitably they will be punished and essentially become complicit in their own downfall.
CM: What are your thoughts on the police, which have been the focus of the George Floyd protests?
WAJ: I truly believe most police officers are good and effective professionals, but every point of the criminal justice system needs examination. The fact is that white Americans in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods can go weeks without seeing the police on their streets. Imprisonment never pops up in their thoughts or conversations. Black Americans live with a constant awareness of potentially dangerous, life-altering, and even deadly interactions with police and the criminal justice system.
CM: Business, political, and civic leaders have recently made significant commitments to equal justice and opportunity. For example, Goldman Sachs has started a racial equity fund with an initial $10 million contribution and city mayors, state governors, and federal elected representatives have introduced police reforms. Is change on the horizon?
WAJ: People are getting on the George Floyd bandwagon. They are putting out statements about justice and equality and inclusiveness and transparency. We have to recall that the same thing happened after the civic unrest that wracked America in 1992 following the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, as well after the urban riots in the 1960s. Every generation or half-generation, the US erupts in response to egregious police conduct and racial discrimination, but then turns its back on real reform.
The real tragedy is that we as a society, as a nation, have had many opportunities to solve our racial problems. What could make the George Floyd protests different is if we hold people to their commitments, if we hold them accountable for going beyond what they feel obligated to say in the heat of the moment to protect their reputations and corporate brands. We have to keep a public record of who’s saying what, who’s committing to what, and check back in six months when things have settled down to see what they have actually done and hold them accountable. We can’t rely on good will; we have to document a continuum of change.
CM: High inequality almost ensures you stay in the same social position for generations. In America, we usually talk about reducing inequality in terms of progressive tax policies or increasing the minimum wage or increasing access to educationall actions of the federal and state governments. What can mayors and other officials do at the local level to reduce inequality?
WAJ: Mayors make strategic decisions to deliver quality. They control local economic and community development, local land use, policing. Economic development deals, for example, can have tremendous impact. They define what services people have in their neighborhoods. Too often, commercial areas in poor urban neighborhoods are dominated by liquor stores, nail salons, and laundromats, which add to residents’ feelings of inferiority and stress. Once you start adding full-service supermarkets, restaurants, and other services typically associated with middle-class neighborhoods, it gives people in poor neighborhoods not only consumer choice, but also respect. To give another example, land use is a local government responsibility, and eliminating exclusionary zoning which effectively prevents poor people from living in a community can have a profoundly positive effect on economic and social inequality. It’s also mayors who play the biggest role in lessening tensions between police departments and communities if color.
Mayors set the tone for their cities. They decide whether or not to share some of their power with citizens. Mayors can give residents more freedom and power to govern themselves instead of regarding them as users of public services who require surveillance by city administrators. And, as we have seen so many times in recent years in the US, local interventions from neighborhood to city levels influence national policy.
Mayors, in tangible ways, can give people hope that their efforts can make things better.
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