San Jose’s racial equity office could mirror other major cities
About 50 people gathered at San Jose City Hall on Saturday to call out lawmakers for established a racial equity office instead of defunding the police.

A month after San Jose approved creating an office of racial equity in the wake of civil unrest, questions remain about what the office will actually do — and how it can tackle systemic racism.

Some activists have accused San Jose lawmakers of creating the office to appease protesters instead of defunding police. They claim the office will be nothing but more government bureaucracy.

But leaders in two major cities that have established racial equity and civil rights offices say it can move the needle.

Both San Francisco and Seattle created offices to address racial equity and civil rights before San Jose. The directors of the civil and human rights offices in both cities explained how their work to combat racial inequities is being implemented.

The challenge, they said, is instituting policies to combat racism — when their institutions have been complicit in it.

“I think it’s a tension that exists and probably will always exist,” said Mariko Lockhart, the director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. “It’s a healthy tension because we consider our office to be accountable to communities most impacted by racism and we are part of the institution that perpetuates racism. That’s a dynamic that is … it’s just very challenging to bridge.”

At the inception of San Jose’s Office of Racial Equity, city leaders said it would be a major step to addressing institutional racism plaguing San Jose for decades.

Although San Jose is fairly diverse, with 32% of its population being Hispanic or Latino, 35.4% of its population being Asian and 40% of its population being White, there are still gaps such as only 3% of Black representation.

In Seattle, the city government launched its Race and Social Justice Initiative in 2004, and developed various procedures for departments to address racial inequities. The Seattle Office for Civil Rights has six people responsible for consulting with each city department on how to implement their racial equity initiative.

White people make up 68% of Seattle’s population, while Black people make up 7%, Hispanic and Latinos are at 6% and Asians are at 15%.

Seattle leaders are required to submit an analysis for how different city decisions may affect inequities. Each department is required to implement four analyses for every city decision using a racial equity toolkit.

“If the Department of Transportation is planning to shrink a street because they want to put a bike lane in, or if they are planning to put a street car through a neighborhood, what we would ask them is, ‘Please use the racial equity toolkit,” Lockhart said. “Go through those six steps to determine (if) there’s going to be unintended impacts of this project, who stands to benefit and who will be burdened by this plan that you have.”

The Office for Civil Rights in Seattle also collaborates with other departments, such as the city’s housing department, to ensure development does not displace a community’s longtime residents.

“Developers who are building housing need to affirmatively market to those communities who are at risk of being displaced to try and keep that displacement from continuing, and then also to reach back and see who has already been displaced,” Lockhart said. “Can they have a first opportunity to come back to the neighborhoods where they actually have either lived or run a business?”

The efforts to address racial inequities are citywide in both San Francisco and Seattle.

San Francisco Human Rights Commission Director Sheryl Davis said that under a policy approved in 2019, every city department must submit a racial equity action plan to the Board of Supervisors.

“The idea was that we would be at the city, really getting shared definition, getting some language around equity, talking about racial equity and building that out,” Davis said.

For San Francisco, Davis said that improving racial equity requires actions beyond overseeing how racism plays out.

“We don’t want to just create an office where folks are being kind of monitored,” she said. “We really want folks to think about it in their day-to-day work to challenge themselves to do a self assessment, and not to have it be an internal document that they keep rewriting every year without focusing on change.”

San Francisco’s population is about 5% Black and 15% Latino, according to United States Census data. White people make up almost 53% of the city and Asians make up 36%.

Davis said San Francisco lawmakers instituted the changes after hearing complaints from city officials about inequities.

“A lot of our folks of color who work for the city were also talking about the unfair practices internally, so (we) really had been building this movement,” she said. “A lot of it has been spurred by city workers who were complaining about unfair practices based on race in the city.”

In Seattle and San Francisco, these institution-wide race equity efforts include leaders in each city department.

Each city department in Seattle is required to have a “Change Team,” which is appointed to ensure equitable practices. Some are paid officials while others are volunteers.

In San Francisco, each department is required to have an equity lead.

Davis said departments must carve out time for equity leads to conduct analysis on their department’s work.

“In order for folks to really take it serious and not put extra burden on people, if the city is really committed to this, people shouldn’t be asked to do it outside of their work time,” Davis said.

San Jose leaders have hired five people to staff the new office, but city leaders are scrambling to secure ongoing funding for it.

City councilmembers capped funding for San Jose’s new Office of Racial Equity at $1.5 million and ordered city staff to control spending as the city creates IT infrastructure and hires personnel to collect data on racial inequities.

Davis said she’s confident the new office would push forward change.

“This time around it doesn’t seem like a check (in) the box,” Davis said. “Folks are really challenging themselves and thinking about what they’re doing and I think part of that has to do with having a public display of what they’re capturing.”

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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