By Dante J. James
The City of Oakland created the Department of Race and Equity in 2015, reflecting the city’s recognition and acknowledgment that racial disparities exist—they are systemic—and it is time to provide focus and support for their elimination.
The department is tasked with integrating the principle that Oakland is a “fair and just” city by eliminating systemic inequities caused by past and current decisions, systems of power and privilege and policies.
So what is social, and specifically racial, equity? It is when all people have full and equal access to opportunities that enable them to attain their full potential.
How do we know when we have attained this equity?
Equity will be attained when identity—such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation or expression—has no detrimental effect on the distribution of resources, opportunities, and outcomes for group members in a society.
To express it more simply, equity is realized when one’s identity cannot predict the outcome. In this city, this state and this country, it is clear that one’s identity, certainly one’s race, can absolutely predict the outcome.
Looking at the most impactful social indicators of success; it is not class, it is not gender, which are most decisive. It is race that is the ultimate predictor of the most detrimental outcomes in society.
Obviously there are exceptions. However as a predictor, we know that race will absolutely predict the disparity in school suspensions and expulsions, high school graduation, college graduation, home ownership, employment, health care, mortality rates based on zip code, incarceration rates, immigration responses, and many more indicators of social success.
We know that Black and Brown defendants are more likely than White defendants to be imprisoned for the same crime. Applicants with White sounding names are twice as likely to get a call back for an interview.
Black and Brown men are more likely to be stopped and searched than White men even though White men are more likely to be found with contraband and outstanding warrants.
Nationally, Black pre-school children are given nearly half of all out of school suspensions but make up only about 20 percent of the enrollment.
Suspension or expulsion lead to lower graduation rates, which lead to lower paying jobs, which lead to inability to have good credit, which lead to inability to get a good mortgage. The issues are systemic.
The new Department of Race and Equity will focus on the work of the city government to ensure it is providing its services in ways that do not exacerbate disparities based on race.
For example, in Oakland’s not-so-distant past, housing and employment policies, like elsewhere in the U.S., were explicitly racist. The effects of these past institutional policies and practices still influence, usually unintentionally, current public policies or practices, and create race-based inequity across our community.
The department will work to bring awareness and analysis to these disparate outcomes and help city departments find ways to approach their work with an equity lens and understanding of their impacts on community.
The work of the department requires the support of the communities it serves as it pushes this difficult conversation throughout city leadership and city staff.
These disparities did not occur overnight, and they will not magically disappear because the department now exists. The work begins now.
Dante J. James, Esq. is interim director of the city’s Department of Race and Equity. He is on loan from Portland, where he started and is director of its Office of Equity and Human Rights.