When New York City voters head to the polls next week, they shouldn’t overlook the back of their ballots. Three questions submitted by the NYC Racial Justice Commission, a body convened in March 2021 by then-mayor Bill de Blasio “to root out systemic racism across New York City,” would amend the city charter on “racial equity” grounds. Last December, the commission advanced the questions to the ballot and detailed its findings in a report; in May, Mayor Eric Adams committed $5 million to the commission for voter education and outreach efforts, which launched this month as a campaign to “flip the ballot.”
As Seth Barron noted recently in City Journal, the measures are legally toothless, as each proposed amendment contains a proviso that the new text is “not intended to create a direct or indirect right of action.” But if adopted, advocates will argue in city hall and in the courts that the new rules require legal change. Given the substance of these proposals, that’s a troubling prospect.
The first question asks voters to add a preamble to the charter acknowledging past “grave injustices and atrocities” and current “discrimination, racial segregation, mass incarceration, and other forms of violence and systemic inequity.” In the future, it declares, the city must strive “to reconstruct, revise and reimagine our foundations, structures, institutions, and laws to promote justice and equity for all New Yorkers.” The commission’s report claims that this proposed preamble represents the values “that matter most to New Yorkers,” forming “a consensus about the elements of an equitable city.” But does this language reflect the beliefs of most residents, or those of a small cadre of progressive elites?
Consider policing. The report asserts that the police have created a “violent history and constant threat” that “has inhibited thriving individuals, families and communities” via “a form of structural violence.” Yet polling done last year by the Manhattan Institute reveals that 62 percent of black New Yorkers and 71 percent of Hispanics supported empowering police officers to respond more to quality-of-life issues in communities. Only 17 percent of blacks and 18 percent of Hispanics wish to see a smaller police presence.
The second question enables the first to be put into practical effect. It would require the city as a whole and each agency individually to create biennial racial-equity plans and would establish a city office for racial-equity matters, headed by a “chief equity officer.” This new office would be tasked with improving access to city services, collecting equity-related data, and providing agencies with “training and technical assistance on racial equity.” Finally, the measure would create a standing 15-member Commission on Racial Equity, appointed by the mayor and other city officials, to propose changes to racial-equity plans and to track compliance with them.
These new entities would serve as a magnet for progressive interest groups. Racial-equity plans are designed to inform the budget process, so the city will likely face perennial pressure to increase spending on equity-related measures. But as Stephen Eide has argued in the context of maintaining a standalone homeless-services department, New York doesn’t need single-purpose bodies to demonstrate a commitment to improving the lives of those in disadvantaged communities. And lobbying by groups that represent a particular constituency might undermine the interests of other groups that fall under the preamble’s umbrella: as recent events in Los Angeles demonstrate, complex racial politics in diverse cities can’t be reduced to a unified coalition of the marginalized struggling against the allegedly powerful white majority. In any case, given the composition of the charter commission itself, these new positions would likely draw from the ranks of activist organizations, unions, and academia—thus flattening the true range of public opinion.
The final question would create a so-called “true cost of living measure” that aims to calculate “an average amount necessary to cover the cost of essential needs at an adequate level,” including housing, health care, clothing, transportation, taxes, and so on, but “without offsetting those costs through public assistance or private or informal assistance.”
This proposal quickly encounters difficulties. Omitting public benefits seems like an attempt to engineer an artificially eye-popping cost-of-living figure. Indeed, New York State leads the nation in welfare spending. In 2018, the state spent $3,869 per resident on Medicaid—twice the national average. New York City operates the nation’s largest municipal hospital system, which has historically (though not currently) run deep deficits.
Above all, the worst aspect of these ballot measures is their potential to entrench racial categorization, classification, and division throughout city government. Should New York really adopt color-consciousness as the lodestar of the city constitution at a time when an increasingly multiethnic country is wrestling over the salience of race? The ballot questions come as racial minorities wield unprecedented power and influence in Gotham. The city’s mayor, city council speaker, and police commissioner are black; 34 out of 51 councilmembers belong to the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus; the NYPD has been a majority-minority force for over a decade; and black New Yorkers vote in at least the same rates as their white compatriots, with Latinos gaining ground.
New York voters will have to decide whether their city would really benefit from a renewed focus on racial matters.
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