Commentary: Oakland Needs a Department to Address Institutionalized Injustice

By Kitty Kelly Epstein

Two-thirds of the people who live in Oakland are not white and Oakland has a long history of struggle for racial justice.

Dr. Kitty Kelly Epstein

Dr. Kitty Kelly Epstein

Yet the situation of most whites is quite different from the situation of many Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and indigenous people.  In fact, Oakland has the seventh worst income inequality of any major city in the country. (Statistics on wealth gaps for Asians and indigenous groups are not available from those doing these calculations.)

We need to put changing this at the center of the city’s efforts. In the one place where we have some real power, local government, we need to say that we understand institutional racism still exists and we want to do something about it – officially

It won’t be easy. The whole country is full of policies that uphold racism, but there is a lot more we could do if we focused and strategized, especially on the policies and practices that produce the racial wealth gap.

We need a city Department of Race and Equity because the racial wealth gap in the U.S. is 13 to 1 between the median white and the median African-American family and 10 to 1 between the median white and the median Latino family.

These gaps in wealth and income result from a national history of overt and covert racial discrimination – slavery, U.S. seizure of Mexican land, share-cropping, red-lining; English-only policies; bracero programs; immigration policies and a thousand other events and policies.

And these gaps contribute to housing, health, and policing inequities as well. Here are just a few current local specifics which a department of Race and Equity might look into:

African Americans are 28 percent of the Oakland population. Yet they were hired for only 5 percent of the hours on city-funded construction projects last year;

Latinos are 41 percent of Oakland students, but only 13 percent of its teachers. A city department would, of course, need to work collaboratively with the school district if it were to help in rectifying this imbalance.

Oakland is lauded for multi-cultural music and art. Yet city support for minority-owned venues is often lacking;

Oakland has lots of new fancy restaurants, but not many Black or Latino or Asian folk earn the fancy tips at the front-end of these houses.

Some city departments seem to have many employees of every ethnicity. Yet the department that plans the city’s economic future seems to be overwhelmingly white.

The last “disparity study” commissioned by the city showed statistically significant underutilization of “minority” owned and women owned firms in both construction and professional services contracts.   There was also a significant underutilization of Asian, Latino, and African-American firms in construction sub-contracts.

Non-white contractors have reported a good-old-boys network, difficulty in receiving information on the bid process, difficulty in obtaining financing, and other issues.

Oakland is blessed with dozens of activist and non-profit organizations that work on these issues, but we often feel that we are fighting a multiple-headed beast, winning in one place, only to lose again when someone forgets that a new policy or procedure is supposed to be in place.

We need an official department in city government that is responsible for caring whether two-thirds of the residents receive the same economic, political, and social benefits as the other third.

We need a Department of Race and Equity

Kitty Kelly Epstein, PhD is author of “Organizing to Change a City” (2012), Peter Lang, and host of Education Today on KPFA 94.1 FM.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, May 16, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)