How "Racial Equity Offices" Undermine the Call for Real Transformative Change

Editor's Note:

In response to unprecedented numbers of public comments calling to defund SJPD, and a proposal from families who lost loved ones to police, San Jose City officials chose, instead of listening to the demands of their constituents, to hastily create the Office of Racial Equity. In doing so, the city ignored the research on the limits of the office, as well as the overwhelming movement on the streets calling for real transformative change.

I am a student who studies the racial implications of governmental laws, policies, and their implementations from some of the leading experts in this area, in the African American Studies department at Princeton University. It is unnecessary for city governments themselves to become sites of research, study, and analysis, which is precisely the business universities are in. It is a waste of city funds, time, and effort to create Racial Equity Offices that are slated to do little more than research and study a city’s structural racism, when that work is already being done by researchers, scholars, and academics, already resourced in many cases by state funding.

And so, in isolating the research and study of racialized laws and policies to just a few staff members of an office tucked away within a municipal bureaucracy, Mayor Liccardo, and his fellow mayors across the country are not only rejecting pre-existing research, but are also ignoring and devaluing the experiential knowledge that comes with lived experience of laws and policies. This research was evident in the hundreds of public comments that flooded the city council meetings throughout June: San Jose residents know the racialized nature of San Jose laws and policies because they live them. We don’t need a city office telling us that racism exists in their city. Organizers and community members in San Jose have been calling to divest from the prison industrial complex and invest in the community for years. These calls are accompanied by similar efforts in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Minneapolis. In the past couple months, those three cities have pledged to slash small portions of their police budgets, and Minneapolis has voted to dismantle their police department. This progress is in no way a result of their respective Racial Equity Offices, none of which call for this divest/invest model. These wins are a result of community sponsored and led organizing that has been ongoing for years, far predating the establishment of these offices. 

In the multiple weeks that San Jose residents, alongside our comrades across the country and world, took to the streets demanding justice for George Floyd, calling for an end to white supremacy and systemic racism, one call in specific arose, loud and clear: Defund SJPD. Thousands protested and marched, thousands more remained active in their homes. With the vote to approve San Jose’s municipal budget on June 16, hundreds of protestors brought their voices, frustrations, and creative ideas to City Council meetings in the days and weeks leading up to the vote, transforming our activism from marches and chants to one-minute spoken and written public comments.

In response to the unprecedented number of public comments calling to defund SJPD and to instead invest in communities, the city officials chose, instead of listening to the demands of their constituents, to hastily create the Office of Racial Equity and funding it with $1.5 million. This change was introduced in the final hours before the budget was voted on. It is important to note that none of the demands expressed in the protests or public comments called for the creation of such an office.

Offices of Racial Equity have become popularized in the past few years. Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and Minneapolis, are just a few of the large US cities that have created these offices in the past few years. These models follow a similar charter: to study, examine, and address racial equity in the city’s departments, policies, and city workers. 

According to Mayor London Breed, upon the creation of San Francisco’s Office of Racial Equity in 2019, the office is “working to repair harms from policies that previously created, upheld, or exacerbated racial disparities.” The office, funded with $1 million over the next two years, is tasked to “analyze city policies for their potential impact on various racial groups, and consult with City departments to establish tailored plans to address racial disparities both within individual departments and within the communities they serve.” Over this year, the office was tasked to create a citywide “Racial Equity Framework,” which will outline their research and include metrics by which departments can measure their performance to address racial disparities. 

In Los Angeles, the Office of Racial Equity was also created in 2019, and was tasked with breaking down racial disparities in the city policies and programs affecting issues like housing, health, education, employment, and the justice system. Like the San Francisco office, LA’s new Office of Racial Equity will be in charge of monitoring data and metrics through a “racial equity impact tool,” creating ideas for civic engagement, examining government policies that could affect certain groups, ultimately to provide a report on inequities throughout the city. Additionally, in an executive order issued on June 19, 2020, Garcetti directed the creation of departmental “racial equity officers”, following a model similar to the core team found in Seattle, developing a “racial equity action plan” with directives to review departmental/office functions, and to create a “Racial Equity Task Force.”

The Race and Social Justice Initiative was created in Seattle in 2008 to be a “citywide effort to end institutionalized racism and race-based disparities in City government.” It similarly functions to research municipal policies and publish strategic plans and recommendations, while also creating workplans, trainings, and other engagement tactics to bring forward conversations of race and racism in the city government. The office employs a small staff while also organizing a core team, which is a cohort of representatives from each city department, “which infuses a continuation of anti-racism analysis building, leadership development training, critical dialogue and strategy sessions as well as race-based caucusing.”

A consistent thread throughout all of these offices, along with offices set up in Oakland, Portland, Minneapolis, and many other cities around the country, along with the charter for the new office in San Jose, is that they are set up to research, study, and analyze the structural racism that exists in each of these cities. These offices are not tasked with implementing any tangible policy change. They are limited in their scope as a result of their budgets and their power in crafting and implementing policies. And thus, it begs the question, ‘what are city governments are meant for?’ Are they equipped to research and study structural racism, to complete complex analyses of their own laws, policies, and methods of enforcement? Or are they tasked with managing the distribution of public taxes, the provision of infrastructure and resources to benefit the public, and implement and enforce legal codes? Can they really do both?

As Sam Liccardo mentioned in the City Council meeting on June 16, it is necessary to be informed by the already ample literature that exists, and has been studied and collected by academics throughout the country, and in our city as well. However, Liccardo did not cite any of the scholars who have contributed foundational research to the study of policing, the prison industrial complex, or racist laws or policies, like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Ruha Benjamin, Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor, or any others. Instead, the one scholar he chose to cite was Harvard Economist Roland Fryer, who, unmentioned by Liccardo, was suspended by Harvard in 2019 after sexual harassment claims. If Liccardo clearly did not do his research well, how can he preside over an internal research office?

We do not need an Office of Racial Equity to tell us what we already know: that the police, and the entire Prison Industrial Complex disproportionately target, maim, violate, and murder Black and Brown people in this city. That racial segregation exists. That wealthy white neighborhoods of San Jose are flush with resources, while predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods are chronically disinvested in. 

With lived research and knowledge comes ideas for change. In calling to defund the SJPD, San Jose residents are also calling for an investment in the community. We are calling for increased funding for libraries, youth programs, housing, public parks, and more. We are calling for an influx of resources to be allocated to Black and Brown communities, who know far better than any government official what our partners, parents, kids, friends, neighbors, and larger community needs. Instead of pushing money into useless bureaucracy that actively slows change, the San Jose government and Mayor Liccardo must engage with the demands and desires that constituents have already laid out of them.

San Jose residents never called for an office to tell us what we already know.

Works Cited:

Casselman, Ben, and Jim Tankersley. “Harvard Suspends Roland Fryer, Star Economist, After Sexual Harassment Claims.” The New York Times, July 10, 2019, sec. Business.

City News Service. “L.A. City Council Votes to Create Office of Racial Equity.” Los Angeles Daily News. December 11, 2019.

City of Seattle. “Core Team 5 - Race and Social Justice Initiative.” Accessed June 26, 2020.

———. “Race and Social Justice Initiative.” Accessed June 26, 2020.

Garcetti, Eric. “Executive Directive No. 27: Racial Equity in City Government.” City of Los Angeles Office of the Mayor, June 19, 2020.

Office of the Mayor, City and County of San Francisco. “Mayor London Breed, Supervisors Sandra Lee Fewer and Vallie Brown Create Office of Racial Equity,” October 1, 2019.

Walker, Taylor. “New Office of Racial Equality Will Soon Be Working to Erase Racial Gaps in LA.” Witness LA. December 12, 2019.