During this afternoon’s City Council meeting, I delivered remarks focused on the challenge and opportunity of achieving racial justice in New Rochelle.  I hope that these comments will help foster honest dialogue among people of all views, and encourage throughout our community a greater commitment to progress and understanding.  If my remarks resonate with you, then please share them with others.  You can read the full statement below or download this pdf.

As you know, I usually speak off the cuff at Council meetings and rarely from prepared statements, but today I am making an exception, because I want to try to get every word right.

Let me note at the outset that I have shared this statement in advance with the City Council and City Manager, the majority of whom have offered their support and solidarity. In this sense, I am speaking now not just for myself alone, but also for the City’s broader leadership.

Our agenda today has been filled even more than usual with consequential subjects:

  • The RFW Report, which highlights historical inequities and proposes a community outreach and engagement strategy for the LINC;
  • The Police Reform Plan, months in the making and likely to be adopted next week;
  • Revisions to our affordable housing policy aimed at promoting equitable housing options; and
  • Anti-Racism training for our senior management, as well as the Council itself.

Each of these issues can and should be considered independently, on its own terms and merits. And yet they are also connected by a deeper through-line, because all of them, to one degree or another, touch on questions of race.

What’s more, they reflect and echo a larger national conversation. This brilliant country, that I love and that has given my family so much, has never fully come to grips with its legacy of racial oppression or with the contradictions and hypocrisies that have excluded whole categories of people from the American Dream. With overdue awareness of this legacy and increasing determination to confront it, comes also reaction, retrenchment, and resentment, sometimes escalating into violence.  The alarming increase in bias crimes. The January 6th insurrection, with its ugly overtones of White Supremacy. And, closer to home, the stickers that proliferated around schools and neighborhoods, with barely-coded messages of hate and intimidation. There is a real struggle underway to define the true nature of our society, with the age-old question of whether its promises and obligations apply to some or to all.

So this is an opportune moment for us to acknowledge, in frank and perhaps uncomfortable terms, the role of race here in our own community and to discuss the ongoing, unfinished work of achieving racial justice.

New Rochelle enters this conversation with some advantages. Our self-image is one of acceptance and inclusion, and there is much truth to this image. Many residents choose to live here precisely because of our diversity and embrace of pluralism. Those of us who grew up in New Rochelle with classmates and friends across racial lines can, in particular, attest that such relationships shape us for the better – all of us, black, white, and brown.

And yet even among people of good will, denial and ignorance are widespread. Denial about the stark and persistent racial inequalities that impact the daily experience and life prospects of thousands of our neighbors.   Ignorance of the history that has woven segregation into our city’s very fabric. Especially if you look like me and your circumstances are comfortable, then it’s easy to live in an idealized version of New Rochelle as we wish it to be, rather than the often difficult reality of New Rochelle as it actually is.

To look that reality square in the face, start with statistics.

The Census blocks here in our city with the highest minority population tend to have the lowest income, the lowest levels of employment, and the most overcrowded housing conditions.

Students of color in New Rochelle are less likely to graduate on time, less likely to attain grade-level benchmarks, and more likely to face suspension. Gaps that reverberate well into adulthood.

Then when it comes to family wealth, these gaps widen into a gulf. The typical white family has ten times the assets of the typical black family. A single data point that, all by itself, is almost sufficient to implicate everything else.

The very air we breathe is linked to race, and not just through exposure to pollutants. Take a look at heat maps – of New Rochelle – which illustrate temperature differentials and vulnerability to climate change. Then lay these maps against the redlined neighborhoods of the 1930s and see the startling similarities.

Indeed, it is literally the case that who lives and who dies can be predicted in part by race and geography. Here in New Rochelle, as elsewhere, the pandemic has struck hardest at people of color, preying on poorer access to health care, greater prevalence of pre-existing conditions, and painfully-earned skepticism of the medical establishment.

But maybe statistics aren’t even necessary. And this, again, is directed to my white friends and neighbors. Just visit different parts of our city. Walk a line from Bracey Houses to Lincoln Park, then up North Avenue to Wykagyl, and on the Scarsdale border. Take note of the differences you observe.

Then think about the roles we all fill. Go to the City Court. See who is most frequently present as an attorney, and who is most frequently present as a defendant. Think about who most typically picks up your trash, who typically patrols a street, and who typically presides over a meeting. Consider who most often takes the train to work, and who takes the bus.

I am generalizing, of course, and there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, and yet the overall pattern of segregated housing, circumstances, and life experiences is unmistakable, and can only be explained as a product of structures and systems in which all of us participate.

These structures and systems may have originally depended on the force of law for their shape and strength, but no longer; once the building is fully erected you can take down the scaffolding. And so, despite real advances in civil rights, we are still living in a house built by slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining, still living in neighborhoods shattered and isolated by brutal projects like Memorial Highway and by the loss of core institutions like Lincoln School, with the disadvantages and privileges assigned to one generation passing down to the next.

How many of our choices, seemingly products of will, conscience, and merit, are, in fact, imposed upon us by this history? Where we live, where we go to school, where we shop. How we view a police officer, or a teacher, or a loan officer, or a doctor, or for that matter, how we view a mayor or council member – as distant and menacing authority figures, or as guardians and servants. These complicated relationships, based on either confidence or fear, trust or skepticism, can sometimes be traced almost directly to the color-coding of a map nearly a century ago, or to historical experiences seared into the minds of some communities and almost entirely alien to others.

Those who deny this account will often point to individual counter-examples. We elected a black President and Vice President, after all. And it’s true: there are innumerable instances of people of color succeeding, including many examples here in New Rochelle, which is known nation-wide for its thriving black middle and upper class – some of our most admired and accomplished residents. Just as there are countless white people, here and elsewhere, who struggle against terrible obstacles.

But these counter-examples prove nothing, because no one argues that race alone is destiny, or that race is the only factor shaping our lives. What race does is stack the odds. Determine whether you are swimming upstream or downstream, wind at your back or wind in your face. And those stacked odds propagate across whole neighborhoods and communities, with devastating effect.

So what do we do? And who is responsible for doing it?

These questions should be approached with some humility.  To expect a single city to address the full scope of this challenge is to guarantee disappointment. True and full racial justice requires a sustained national strategy, up to and including reparations.

But it is fair to judge New Rochelle by how we work together to address the portions of this challenge that fall within our influence, and by whether we seize opportunities to encourage awareness, reconciliation, and progress, based on collaboration and partnership.

Because the truth is that the institution we represent bears its share of responsibility for these conditions. Through active harm or indifferent neglect, this City has been complicit historically in choices that elevated some and marginalized others. And even if some of those choices predated our personal service, that legacy is now ours to own. In this sense, it is appropriate and necessary for us today to offer an apology on behalf of this institution to those who have been wronged, to acknowledge the history that we have discussed tonight, to set aside complacency, ease, or ignorance in our own actions as public servants, and most importantly, to find a better, more equitable path forward.

Reasonable people will disagree on the precise contours of that path.  But if we commit ourselves to finding and acting upon our shared values, to better understanding our disparate experiences and perspectives, then those debates are more likely to have positive outcomes, and less likely to tear us apart.

And make no mistake, this matters to everyone. It’s not zero-sum. All of us benefit from a more just and equal community. And none of us, even the most privileged, will find refuge if civil society collapses under the insupportable weight of inequality and division.

Fortunately, good work is underway, and not just in a cosmetic, rhetorical sense. This Council, prior Councils, and others in New Rochelle’s civic and community leadership have taken – and will continue to take – meaningful, significant steps oriented toward healing and equity:

  • Investing in historically-neglected neighborhoods to close a gap in amenities, programming, and services: the Lincoln Park master plan, the GROW community garden, the anticipated new Remington Boys and Girls Club, CircuitNR, the DRI with its recreational and traffic calming components, and the Linc, which aims to bind up the open wound of Memorial Highway.
  • Expanding opportunities for quality housing for everyone, including hundreds of new affordable apartments, some already built, some planned. Places where all of us could be proud to live, and which disrupt and repair segregated housing patterns.
  • Preserving, recording, and displaying our history through initiatives like the Lincoln Park Conservancy, which will soon have a permanent home through a public-private partnership.
  • Enhancing dialogue, consultation, and shared decision-making, evidenced by stronger partnerships with not-for-profits and houses of worship, the formation of the African-American Advisory Committee, the Advisory Committee on Immigrant Affairs, and a future Hispanic Advisory Committee, as well as appointed leadership on the bench and on our boards and commissions.
  • And shaping a more humane and effective system of law enforcement and criminal justice, including the measures contained within our Policing Reform Plan, and initiatives that position New Rochelle as a true trailblazer, like the Opportunity Youth Part within the City Court.

More is coming. I look forward to the anti-racism training all of us will receive this year, to improving compliance with our non-discrimination policies, and to making our affordable housing standards more ambitious. I look forward to co-creating the Linc with our community, so that this transformative project is embraced as an amenity for the neighborhood, and not a covert means of pushing people out of the neighborhood. I look forward to ensuring that the benefits and opportunities of economic growth are shared broadly. And I look forward to better measuring the equity impacts and effects of our actions, so that the culture of local government is better aligned with the cause of justice, and so that all of our residents will feel valued and empowered to shape our common future.

That is a partial list – a beginning, not an end.

We in New Rochelle profess an inclusive vision, now it is our duty to live by that vision. Let us strive to better stand in each other’s shoes, not in naïve denial of real differences, but in the sure knowledge that common ground is the straightest path to higher ground – and the knowledge also that though we may have arrived in different boats, literally and metaphorically, we are all in the same boat now, going up or down together.

Thank you for listening.