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How Cities Are Ending Unintentional Racial Discrimination

Discrimination doesn't always appear in the most obvious places. Many government policies and practices are seemingly unbiased and uncontroversial but actually disproportionately harm minorities.

A middle class neighborhood in Seattle.
If you’ve ever heard Glenn Harris explain racial equity in government, you’ve probably heard him talk about streetlights in Seattle.

Harris used to work on race and social justice issues in the Seattle mayor’s office. In 2008, fatal shootings of five black men prompted then-Mayor Greg Nickels to tour the Southeast neighborhood where they occurred. Though Seattle is mostly white, this part of the city had the most diverse census tract in the country. The majority of residents were people of color; almost half were refugees; and more than half lived below the poverty line.

On his tour, Nickels noticed that a lot of streetlights had gone permanently dark. The neighborhood had 80 burnt-out streetlights, many more than other areas of the city. “Why is that?” he asked. The answer: It was up to residents to report nonworking streetlights, and few did.

That's because people in Southeast Seattle tended to avoid interacting with government whenever possible. Residents were less likely to trust government and, in some cases, they didn’t speak enough English to explain their concerns to city officials. As a result, they didn't report burnt-out streetlights.

When utility employees presented this problem to Nickels, they also had a solution: Instead of waiting for complaints, they would now note each bulb’s life expectancy and replace them when necessary. The change benefited the entire city. Not only did residents in Southeast Seattle get better lighting, but customer satisfaction improved in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods because they no longer had to call to complain.

“It’s a great example of when you come up with systems that work better for the most vulnerable,” said Harris, “you come up with systems that work better for everyone.”

Cities across the country can learn from Seattle’s streetlight experience, which is why Harris' organization, the Center for Social Inclusion, is trying to make racial equity a priority for local governments. Harris is helping them reevaluate their policies and practices to see which ones may unintentionally and disproportionately harm minorities.

“We’re not talking about explicit acts of bigotry. You can have wonderful people in an institution, and the institution is still perpetuating inequities," said Julie Nelson, who directs the center's Government Alliance on Race and Equity. 

Local governments have had a history of intentional discrimination, from school segregation to redlining, but the alliance focuses on actions that appear race-neutral yet still result in a disparate impact. 

In St. Paul, Minn., one of the alliance’s first member cities, every agency has a one-year action plan with specific goals to address racial inequity. The city's public libraries, for example, recently stopped asking people for a library card or state license to use the computers. That's because the staff realized that most of the people turned away were black or under 18.

The alliance has a network of more than 50 cities that have committed to eliminating racial disparities in government. It's been around for a few years but received much more interest after the death of Michael Brown Jr., in Ferguson, Mo., sparked a nationwide discussion about institutional racism. 

A post-mortem report on the city of Ferguson and the St. Louis region found gaps between black and white neighborhoods in life expectancy, income, education and health care. 

"We are not pointing fingers and calling individual people racist," the report's authors explained. "We are not even suggesting that institutions or existing systems intend to be racist. What we are pointing out is that the data suggests, time and again, that our institutions and existing systems are not equal, and that this has racial repercussions."

After the Ferguson report, many more cities have requested to join the alliance, and in May, the Living Cities foundation announced that it would support its work in five more cities: Albuquerque, N.M.; Austin, Texas; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Louisville, Ky.; and Philadelphia.

Cities that partner with the alliance get technical assistance on how to not only change current discriminatory practices but prevent future ones. One way they do this is by using data and community outreach to assess the social costs of a proposed policy. The end result would look like an environmental or fiscal impact statement. Several jurisdictions, including Seattle; Multnomah County, Ore.; and Madison, Wis.; have done this for years.

In Seattle, the reform around streetlights led the city to examine the racial impact of other complaint-based systems. It has since changed how it replaces potholes, scrubs graffiti and deploys police officers. The police department used to place patrol officers in areas with lots of 911 calls. But that meant that just as many police patrolled the University of Washington area, where most calls were noise complaints, as in Southeast Seattle, where most calls were to report violent crimes. Now the department uses other criteria, such as the seriousness and frequency of crime in a neighborhood, in deploying officers.  

As cities work toward racial equity policymaking, Nelson stresses that it will take a long time to undo the harm created by centuries of government-instituted discrimination.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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