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How Can Local Government Address Systemic Racism?

Peniel Joseph, one of the nation’s leading civil rights scholars, has studied and written about the history of race and democracy. He has some ideas on how cities and urban areas can begin to dismantle racism.

Peniel E. Joseph, Ph.D., is the founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin. He holds a joint professorship in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, as the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values, and in the History Department of the University’s College of Liberal Arts.

Dr. Joseph is the author of several award-winning books, including Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, and Stokely: A Life. His most recent book is The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. He also served as editor for The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era and Neighborhood Rebels: Black Power at the Local Level.

Joseph is recognized as the founder of the “Black Power Studies” subfield of American Civil Rights History. He founded the center to focus interdisciplinary research and scholarship investigating how issues around race and democracy impact the lives of Americans.

In an interview with Governing, he offers thoughts on the current cultural moment and how local governments might begin to address systemic racism.
Scholar and author Peniel Joseph, founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin. (Photo courtesy of Peniel Joseph)
Have we reached a moment when we could start to dismantle systemic racism?

I hope we have. I do think we're asking the right questions about wealth inequality, racial disparity, white supremacy, white privilege. These questions, along with defunding the police and prison abolition, are all the right takes in terms of policy.

If you're going to dismantle systemic racism, you have to understand the pipeline and why and how it keeps reproducing inequality and marginalization, unemployment, mass incarceration, poverty and racial segregation.

You’re a historian of Black protest movements. How unusual is what we’re seeing lately?

A multiplicity of events led to the fact that this time is different. We've seen other videos of Black men being killed by the police, but we've never seen this kind of cascading series of events.

There was one protest within 24 hours. The New York Times had a breakdown of how that turned into over 4,700 separate protests, including many areas that are overwhelmingly white, where there are no Black people. States like Washington, Utah, Oregon, which we don't typically associate as headquarters or bastions for Black demographics; or Vermont or Maine, that have all taken to the streets in terms of these demonstrations.

During the largest days of protesting, you had 50,000 to 80,000 people in Philadelphia. It was just truly amazing. Unbelievable.

What’s behind a response on this scale?

It's a confluence, a cascade of events. Obviously, 1963 and 1968 are important, but also the election of Barack Obama. The first Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 and 2014 after Trayvon Martin, after Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The election of the current president. The racial disparities that the pandemics amplify, including unemployment, are very important. The easing of shelter in place at the precise time that the Amy Cooper and George Floyd videos went viral.

The women's marches, the March for Our Lives and the various mobilizations that we've seen are part of it, other iterations of marches and social movements that primed young people to come to the fore. Another thing that's primed people is DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], or DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents], people wanting immigrants and undocumented people to be treated well. The cruelty of the treatment of families being detained by ICE definitely struck a chord.

There are also veterans and true believers, marathon runners who've been part of protests and demonstrations and antiracist movements for many decades.

How much are young people helping to move things forward?

Young people are taking the lead. They're out on the streets, they're very excited and inspired. It's definitely something to see. They're making history.

You saw this in the ’60s too, with the sit-in movements and the movement against racial segregation. Young people are a big, big part of it.

What’s the current dynamic between federal and local leadership?

The federal level is important, but states and local municipalities are going to have more room for leadership immediately. We've already seen it with New York taking a billion dollars of its police budget to go into anti-poverty programs and communities of color.

You've seen L.A. say $150 million. You've seen municipalities like Austin agree to do different things immediately to stop anti-Black violence. At the symbolic level, we see the monuments, the flags, NASCAR and the NFL saying “Black Lives Matter.”

Hundreds and thousands of corporations are saying for the first time in history that they're committed to anti-racism. We'll now see through their actions, but even the public statements are important.

What’s the power of such statements?

We've seen with this presidential administration that rhetoric matters. Saying you're pro-women, pro-immigration, pro-racial justice or economic justice matters. It gives people at the grassroots level a unifying vision if there are disparities between the rhetoric and the reality.

The Confederate flag matters in that sense. Racist monuments matter because they are reflecting a kind of dehumanization that is systematically embroidered into our public policy. They reflect larger policy decisions that have real impact on the way in which we all live.

The president calling nations "shithole countries," the president saying people from Mexico are rapists, actually ends up mattering. It matters because once the president says that, it unleashes racial and other kinds of hatred and division that get amplified because the president of the United States said it.

We're living through probably the first time in modern history where you have a White House where the shared values, the rhetorical values that have been embedded through the second World War and the civil rights movement really came tumbling down.

You had different interpretations of those shared values between, say, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, or Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. But when you look at that timeline, that continuum rhetorically, there's a shared vision.

Public consensus is unbelievably important. What we're seeing is that you have public consensus around human rights or civil rights or voting rights, rights for women, or gay marriage.

The only way a country can ever be what it proclaims to be is by saying those things, standing up those things, even if, because of imperfection, we find a thousand instances where the country is not living up to them.

What could be done at the local level to move toward ending systemic racism?

The first place to look is law enforcement and how much of your general revenue locally is going toward law enforcement, and reimagining public safety.

It’s not saying you're getting rid of cops. Many mayors already are investing and advocating for universal basic income for the poorest of their residents, mayors in California, across the country have said that.

I think that you start by looking at criminal justice, you start looking at your zoning, your density policies, where are those equitable and where are they not equitable. Look at voting access. Look at health care and health-care access.

There are a lot of ways to think about equity, but ending systemic racism starts with criminal justice. It's going to require a redistribution of power and resources in local municipalities. You would look to the federal government for leadership at some point to help accelerate that process but the leadership, as we see from the protests, is starting bottom up.

How does housing fit into this?

Homelessness is connected to all of this. One of the arguments that Black Lives Matter made in 2013 was that the criminal justice system in the United States was connected to a panoramic gateway of racial economic inequities and disparities that were connected to social welfare, housing, education, the environment, all these different things.

Housing is connected to criminal justice, when you think about the Clinton crime bill and the way the poor get criminalized. If you ever sold a dime bag of weed, you can never get public housing access again. And that real incalculable trauma that places on families and children whose parents are in prison in the United States.

Can you think of something that contributes to systemic racism that might seem innocuous, but is actually quite dangerous?

The cash bail system. It should be abolished. Money bail goes back to the convict lease system right after the Civil War, where Black men and women were arrested on questionable charges. They could not post bail because they were broke, and so they were leased out to private industries that paid local municipalities money per convict. That convict lease system continues all the way to this day with the cash bail system and its fines and fees.

The Justice Department published reports on Ferguson and Baltimore, how Black citizens were targeted with systemic racism to raise fines and fees so that the local government in Baltimore and then Ferguson wouldn't have to raise taxes on white residents. It's really extraordinary.

The whole criminal justice system has to be rethought. The reason why Black people are disproportionately represented in it is not because of pathology in the Black family, as popularly believed. It's really because of white supremacy.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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