Connecting state and local government leaders
“We're trying to change the status quo,” says one city leader.
Racial equity was a front and center topic as mayors from across the U.S. gathered in Washington last week. The city leaders highlighted plans to tackle racial disparities as they spend billions of dollars of federal pandemic aid, and dozens of them signed onto a compact acknowledging that cities have contributed to structural racism.
As the nation remains polarized over fundamental questions about race, including whether there is even such a thing as structural racism, 143 of the city leaders took the stance at the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting that they believe systemic discrimination exists and that cities have a direct role to play in solving it.
At the same time, a number of mayors said during panel discussions and interviews that addressing racial inequality would be a top priority in using a historic $65 billion in direct federal funding the American Rescue Plan Act provides cities and smaller localities.
In Congress, Republican leaders have criticized efforts to use ARPA funding—which was aimed at helping the nation through the Covid-19 crisis—on pushing a liberal agenda.
Even so, city leaders are moving ahead with a variety of programs where equity concerns are at the forefront.
In Louisville, Kentucky, Mayor Greg Fischer said he is asking those seeking a portion of the city’s ARPA dollars to show how the money will be used to advance racial equity.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the Black mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, said his city is using part of its ARPA funding to make waterworks upgrades meant to improve the flow of water from the showers and faucets in poor communities, which can be only a trickle.
Tucson, Arizona Mayor Regina Romero said during the mayors’ meeting that her city is using its share of the aid for programs focused on youth employment, mental and behavioral health, addiction treatment and low-income housing.
“What we're trying to do with American Rescue dollars is bring about transformative change through investments in the causes of poverty,” she said.
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones noted that compared to earlier pandemic aid, ARPA gave funding directly to communities of all sizes, as opposed to states and larger localities, and also offered local governments a great deal of discretion in how to spend.
Her city used that leeway to issue $500 direct cash assistance payments to people facing financial problems because of the pandemic. “It's a priority for me to address the historic disinvestment of Black and Brown communities,” she said. “When we provide support to those who need it most, we will, in turn, stabilize our communities.”
Victoria Woodards, mayor of Tacoma, Washington, suggested that factors like the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic drew more attention to existing inequities. “It's right there in front of everybody's faces now,” she said. “It's a conversation that you can no longer have on the side. It has risen to the point that it is a conversation that needs to be on the national stage.”
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who is president of the national mayors group and a Republican, described equity issues as “something that humanity struggled with since the beginning of humanity.”
“We would love for everyone to be prosperous," he added in an interview.
But Suarez, who didn't sign the racial equity compact, also flagged philosophical differences over how to approach these matters. “We’re trying to find the right balance of what is the right level of government involvement in that? What is the right level of fostering innovation to empower people to be able to do that on their own?” he said.
Contrast to Capitol Hill
The discussions around race during the mayors’ gathering, held at a downtown Washington, D.C. hotel, were striking in their lack of partisan controversy compared to the more sharply divided U.S. Capitol, only about two miles away.
How local governments are spending ARPA dollars is facing scrutiny from congressional Republicans, who generally oppose the use of the federal funds to address social issues like race, instead of programs tied more directly to the pandemic response.
In a Jan. 12 letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, for instance, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, and Rep. Virginia Foxx, of North Carolina, who is the top Republican on the House education committee, objected to how ARPA funds for schools were being used.
“To the extent schools are spending ARP funds at all, several are reportedly spending their funds on left-wing ideological projects,” they said, citing reports from conservative media outlets that the money was going towards teaching controversial critical race theory.
“This is not surprising. Despite Democrats’ claims to the contrary, these funds were not needed to reopen schools. Because of this, some schools are grasping at any project they can find on which to waste these taxpayer funds, including indoctrinating students and staff with racist and divisive ideologies,” the two Republicans added.
Republicans also say they are wary of federal agencies tailoring rules for the recently approved infrastructure law to advance liberal causes. “Excessive consideration of equity, union memberships or climate as lenses to view suitable projects would be counterproductive,” a group of GOP governors wrote the Biden administration last week.
Commitment to 'Actually Do Something'
The “Compact on Racial Equity” that many of the mayors signed onto notes the “historic complicity of cities with other levels of government and other institutions in segregationist policies that funneled Americans into separate communities and different neighborhoods based largely on race.”
Among other things, the mayors said they would “stand with communities of color through word, deed, procedure, program, policy, vote, or any other mayoral action, and work purposefully to eliminate discrimination faced by these communities.”
They also said that they acknowledged “that, at this point in our history, systemic racism in our cities is a serious public health crisis that continues to claim so many thousands of our people’s lives – disproportionately, in our communities of color.”
And they promised to work to eliminate gaps in areas like wages, education, health, housing, digital access, safety, criminal justice, food security, student loans and voting rights and to “undertake initiatives to promote inclusion, racial equity, and equal justice.”
At least two Republican mayors signed the pledge.
One was Acquanetta Warren, mayor of Fontana, California and chairwoman of a group representing GOP city officials. After the murder of George Floyd, “there was all this talk about diversity, inclusion and equity but nobody has implemented it,” Warren, who is Black, said of her decision to sign.
“Most of the people who think this is controversial aren’t impacted by it,” she said of the ideas in the compact.
David Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, also signed the pledge, but was not available to discuss his decision.
Austin, Texas Mayor Steve Adler, a lead organizer of the compact, said previous attempts to remedy racial disparities in cities, around issues like housing and public health, have fallen short.
With the compact, he said, mayors are making a commitment to “actually do something to help advance racial equity” and to report back on it at future mayors meetings. “We have moved past the place of talking about this theoretically,” he said.
Austin, for instance, has begun discussing the idea of creating reparations for the descendants of slaves.
“If you think about Monopoly, and you make one of the players not be able to roll the dice for the first 20 turns, and then they get to come in and play just like everybody else, in an absolutely equal manner,” Adler said. “All the properties and the hotels have been taken. It's near impossible for that person to ever be able to compete.”
“That's where we are in this country,” he added.
Still, there were signs of the difficulties the pledge could cause mayors back home.
Gerard Hudspeth, the first Black mayor of Denton, Texas, said he hadn’t decided whether to sign it: “I want to take a look at it and see what we can do.” But, he added, he supported its goals.
Hudspeth explained how signing the compact could fuel backlash he has already faced.
“I’ll give you a sneak preview,” he said, pulling up a Facebook message on his phone that he received when he won his election. “Congratulations,” the profanity-filled email said, before calling Hudspeth a “dirty piece of ….” with the writer going on to say he was sure Hudspeth would “mess up this town with your dirty Black ways.”
As Louisville plans its ARPA spending, Fischer, the mayor there, said the city is asking questions like: “How will the proposal promote equitable outcomes? And how will the impact of this proposal on historically underserved, marginalized or adversely affected groups be documented and evaluated?”
The answers to these types of questions, he said, count 25% in grading applications for funding.
“We're trying to change the status quo,” Fischer said, noting that Louisville has focused on problems like affordable housing with its first round of grants. “We're trying to improve the participation of folks that traditionally have not been invited to the party.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.