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The Truth About Racial Equity That Most White Leaders Don't See

Sometimes the morally right thing to do is also the economically smart thing to do.

new orleans robert e lee statue
Workers remove New Orleans' Robert E. Lee statue.
(AP)
Race is central to the governance of most American cities. Not just because so many policies and practices continue to have a disproportionately negative impact on communities of color, but because those practices also reduce cities’ ability to effectively manage the major challenges they face, such as affordable housing, crime and public health. And while the assertion I’m making is grounded in verifiable fact, it is largely invisible to most white people, including most white civic leaders.

But the centrality of race is not invisible to Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans. In his new book, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, Landrieu describes growing up in a very progressive political family. His father, Moon Landrieu, was mayor in the 1970s and was a huge force in integrating New Orleans. 

Still, Mitch did not understand the impact of the city’s Confederate statues on its black population. That is until he met with Wynton Marsalis, the African-American musician and composer who is a New Orleans native. Landrieu wanted his help in planning the city’s tricentennial. Marsalis agreed, but asked for something in return: removal of the city’s Robert E. Lee statue.

Why, Landrieu asked, was that so important? “Let me help you see it through my eyes,” Marsalis replied. “Who is he? What does he represent? And in that most prominent space in the city of New Orleans, does that space reflect who we were, who we want to be, or who we are?” Landrieu writes that he felt “blindsided” and wanted to find a way to tell Marsalis why he couldn’t do what he was asking. In the end, of course, Landrieu did take down the statues of Lee and other prominent Confederates.

There is a way to ensure that the impact of race on cities is made visible and addressed. It is embedded in the Equipt to Innovate framework developed jointly by the research team at Governing and the nonprofit Living Cities. The framework, which is used to assess cities on their capacity to grow and innovate, is anchored in seven key characteristics of high-performance government. But what makes it unique in its usefulness is having at its center a racial equity lens. We recently released the second annual Equipt to Innovate report, which you can find at governing.com/equipt.

Identifying and addressing issues of race bodes well in terms of long-term outcomes. A recent Brookings Institution report analyzing data from the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas found that the relationship between prosperity and inclusion “grows larger and stronger with time.” To me, this only makes sense. In a globally competitive world, the morally right thing to do -- working to create a more inclusive city -- is also the economically smart thing to do.

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at mark@mayorfunk.com.
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