The coming election in New York City includes several ballot measures that propose to amend the city charter to reflect the Left’s obsession with “racial equity.” One of Bill de Blasio’s parting gifts to the city was the establishment of a charter-revision committee called the Racial Justice Commission, which the former mayor specifically modeled after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established there after the collapse of minoritarian white rule. “That got to the whole impact that apartheid had on that society,” proclaimed de Blasio. “Well, that’s what we are going to do here in New York City.”
South Africa’s commission addressed such matters as the extrajudicial assassination of civil rights campaigners, the killing of hundreds of schoolchildren during the Soweto uprising, and the many other effects of a decades-long system of strictly enforced racial segregation in a majority-black country wracked by terror on both sides. The TCR drew many criticisms, but at least the harms it addressed were identifiable.
New York City’s Racial Justice Commission, by contrast, promised “to examine the NYC Charter to identify barriers to power, access, and opportunity for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and all People of Color (BIPOC) in New York City and put forward ballot proposals aimed at removing those barriers and advancing racial equity.” It would also “focus on identifying and proposing structural changes in the NYC Charter that will advance racial justice and equity and begin to dismantle structural racism for all New Yorkers.”
The commission has buried its purposes in jargon. Its roster of groups blocked from “power, access, and opportunity” describes any non-white person without regard for national origin, education, experience, or skills, not to mention citizenship or immigration status, religion, linguistic faculties, or personal wealth. A fifth-generation Chinese-American hedge fund analyst, an African-American nurse, a Yemeni food-cart operator, and a Puerto Rican building superintendent all have more in common with each other than they do with any white New Yorker, according to the logic of the Racial Justice Commission, which throws in the dismantling of “structural racism” as an afterthought, as though that term is readily defined and widely accepted.
The three ballot measures that the RJC has composed are simultaneously hollow and insidious. The first measure would add a preamble to the City Charter including language about achieving a “just and equitable city for all New Yorkers,” while remedying “past and continuing harms.” The second proposal will establish an Office of Racial Equity and “appoint a Chief Equity Officer to advance racial equity and coordinate the City’s racial equity planning process.” The third would require the city to produce an annual “true cost of living index” in addition to other poverty-level metrics in order to prove that, all said and done, it is expensive to live in New York City.
These measures are technically toothless. Adding a preamble to the Charter is just words. The city’s new Chief Equity Officer would impose a new layer of reporting requirements upon every existing municipal agency and require the addition of new staff to handle the extra paperwork. The “true” cost of living index would “not create a direct or indirect right of action,” meaning that it could not be used as the basis for demanding an expansion of welfare benefits or a change in how subsidized housing is allocated along income bands. Passage of these ballot initiatives will have little immediate impact on New Yorkers’ lives.
But they aren’t meaningless. They signal a dangerous advance of the progressive equity agenda into the fabric of city law. Among the contemporary Left, “equity” replaces “equality” as the core American value. “There’s a big difference between equality and equity,” explained Kamala Harris a few days before the 2020 election, in what remains the most lucid presentation of the argument from one of its primary advocates. “Equitable treatment,” Harris elaborates, “means we all end up at the same place.” The civil rights-based orientation of the welfare state as we have lived it for half-a-century has gotten it backward, equity proponents argue, which is why “outcomes” remain unequal. Frontloading opportunity is no longer the principle; we need to backfill resources to paper over deficiencies in the system.
What this would look like is not pretty. The RJC hints at what it has in mind when it speaks of “the need for the City to provide culturally humble, rather than just culturally competent services.” To transcend mere cultural competence, provision of “services” such as subsidized housing, free medical care, or cash assistance requires “cultural humility” in order to be “non-paternalistic.” The root of “humble” and “humility” is humus, or “ground.” The equitable city, we understand, is one in which New York and its people of privilege genuflect (from genu, “knee”) to their moral betters, for whom even receiving services can “take a significant investment of time or money.”
The equity agenda resets the scale of societal obligation such that any gap in wealth or attainment must be filled by the state as a matter of entitlement. While the ballot measures before the city do not (yet) impose actual modes of redistribution of resources, they lay out the philosophical grounds for a future regime to do so.
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images