Racism and the Progress of Our Cities

More than ever, mayors understand the threats their communities face from inequality, discrimination and violence.
July 15, 2016
By Christiana K. McFarland  |  Contributor
Research director for the National League of Cities

This Jan. 6, Baton Rouge, La., Mayor-President Kip Holden delivered his final state of the city address. He spoke proudly of the progress his city had made over the 11 years since he first took office, especially its public-safety successes. Recounting the Red Stick Revelry, the city's distinctive New Year's Eve celebration a few days earlier, he noted that police had not reported a single incident and had made no arrests. "What other city in America could accomplish that?" Holden asked. "It's something we can all be proud of from a public-safety standpoint and as a community."

Yet, just six months later, Baton Rouge is in crisis. Alton Sterling, a black man, was killed by two white police officers who had been investigated previously for use of excessive force. In the days following the shooting, more than 200 arrests resulted from police and protester conflict during mass demonstrations. How could this be? This is a dichotomy that underscores the ability of racism to threaten local and national progress of every kind.

As the economy rebounds and fiscal health stabilizes, mayors across the country have been touting the progress their communities have made through hard work, innovation and collaboration. Every year, the National League of Cities' conducts a content analysis of 100 mayoral state of the city speeches. In our just-released 2016 analysis, we find that mayors are also keenly aware that the promise of cities will be stifled if racism, inequities and violence are not addressed.

Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth, Minn., stated bluntly, "What divides Duluth now is racism, poverty, education and access to economic opportunity." And as Mayor Andrew Ginther of Columbus, Ohio, put it, "It would be naive for us to believe that we do not have African-Americans and other residents in our city who fear being targeted or fear for their lives in their interaction with police." Ten percent of mayors discussed race in their 2016 state of the city speeches.

Recognizing community policing as a potential solution to racial disparities in policing, Mayor Richard David of Binghamton, N.Y., spoke proudly of his city's expanded Community Response Team. "It's a specialized unit which focuses on proactive and engaged community policing. Talking to neighbors, developing relationships and showing a presence where criminals congregate." The team is part of a larger strategy to improve community-police relations in communities of color. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser discussed efforts to improve police accountability to citizens, noting that by the end of this year every D.C. patrol officer will be equipped with a body camera. All told, 45 percent of the mayors mentioned community policing, while 25 percent referred to body cameras.

But an over-arching theme for mayors from cities as diverse as Boston and Grand Forks, N.D., was the importance of addressing racial divisions and maintaining communication across the community. "In community conversations on race and class, we are working through divisions that run deep in our city's social fabric," said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. "And we are turning this healing into real, measurable change toward a more equitable city."

What all of these mayors understand is that racism is testing the resilience of cities of every kind -- large, small, North and South, diverse and largely homogenous. Mayors, those who lead government that is closest to and most trusted by the public, are best positioned to drive meaningful action to address racism, and in many cases have already begun.