Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
An extraterrestrial eavesdropping on earthly communications in 2018 would think the United States is beset by discrimination—racial, gender, religious, and xenophobic.
According to the country’s mayors, he’d be right.
A survey released September 17, 2018, by BU’s Initiative on Cities (IoC) and the National League of Cities (NLC) says mayors believe immigrants, transgender people, African Americans, and Muslims suffer the most discrimination in their cities and across the country—although they also say discrimination is greater elsewhere than in their own backyards.
The surveyors interviewed 115 mayors of cities with populations of 75,000 or more.
“Mayors believe that access to public services is significantly better for white people than for people of color, except for subsidized housing,” the report says. “More than half of all mayors report that white people have better access to jobs, educational opportunities, housing, and healthcare and are treated better by police and the courts.”
While access to services is unequal, service quality is equitable except for schools, the mayors insist. However, says report coauthor Katherine Levine Einstein, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of political science, “We know that [equal quality] is not the case.”
Research shows that from mass transit to public parks, service quality in poor neighborhoods is inferior to that in wealthy ones, Einstein says, and while mayors don’t control the economy, “they do control the quality of parks, and in some cities, they do control the quality of the mass transit system.” She cites a local example: after implementing the BOS:311 app that allows Boston residents to report potholes and other infrastructure problems, the city found that only those in affluent neighborhoods used the app. The problems in communities of color—often impoverished and lacking digital access—were more likely to stay in disrepair, she says.
So the city isn’t waiting for complaints to come in. Instead, while continuing the 311 app, it is, to use its words, “bringing equity to street repairs” with StreetCaster, a program where workers proactively identify sidewalks in need of repair and fix them.
That’s one of several strategies cities are implementing in an effort to roll back discrimination. Since 2016, Boston officials have educated themselves about local racism at community forums with people of color, the report says. Beyond information-gathering, the sessions help with “easing discomfort residents may feel when discussing race in America.”
“We think mayors need better data on where major inequities endure, particularly in areas they can control, like streets, sidewalks, and parks.”
Katharine Lusk, IoC executive director
Louisville, Ky., now collects data on health disparities between neighborhoods, correlated by the race and ethnicity of each area, allowing officials to check access to services and environmental factors behind poor health. The city is using the information to address problems like food insecurity and housing-rooted asthma. It also has created neighborhood centers for health, financial, and housing assistance.
And city government leaders in Anaheim, Calif., have beefed up foreign language translations in city publications and created a kit containing information about where services can be found. Meanwhile, Tulsa, Okla., is working to weed out discriminatory policing, by such means as civilian boards overseeing cops and eliminating ticket and arrest quotas.
As with all else in modern America, even the question of discrimination’s extent is polarized by political party affiliation, “sometimes by as much as 40 percentage points,” says Einstein. “Democrats were much more likely to perceive discrimination.”
She attributes that to the fact that “acknowledging and addressing racial inequalities have become progressive priorities.” Two-thirds of the surveyed mayors were Democratic, reflecting the party split among big-city mayors nationally, she says.
While lacking specific anecdotes, the report offers mayors’ takes on broad areas where citizens of color face discrimination. Majorities of the city leaders cited treatment by police and courts, safe and affordable housing, and access to good schools, healthcare, and job opportunities.
The perception that discrimination is worse elsewhere than in their own cities may be a case of seeing the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own, with mayors perhaps unwilling “to acknowledge discrimination in areas over which they have control,” Einstein says.
Alternatively, she adds, urban executives may believe, with justification, that less diverse rural and suburban towns are hotbeds of discrimination compared to cities.
IoC executive director Katharine Lusk says the survey offers city leaders a light on “some blind spots and offers a starting place for understanding and addressing them. We think mayors need better data on where major inequities endure, particularly in areas they can control, like streets, sidewalks, and parks.”
Read the full Mayoral Views on Racism and Discrimination survey here.
Rich Barlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.