New Oakland department would address racism

Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks expects to propose a new city department that would address systemic racism within the city government and in the city to the full City Council by the end of the month, Brooks said Thursday.

Brooks held a news conference and community meeting to discuss the planned Department of Race and Equity this afternoon. The department would “make sure that the systemic racism that has been part of this city for far too long is finally dealt with once and for all,” Brooks said Thursday.

She first announced her intention to form the department during a special meeting of the City Council in January called to address the nationwide discussion of racism in the criminal justice system in the wake of police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York.

The city department would examine hiring policies across other city departments for racial bias, examine city policies and their impact on minority communities, find new ways to connect minority communities with city resources and improve civic engagement, train city employees in dealing with implicit and explicit racial bias, and present data on racial impacts of city policies in an annual report.

If the ordinance is passed by the full City Council at its March 31 meeting, Brooks said the department could be formed as soon as December. The ordinance will be considered at a meeting of the City Council Life Enrichment Committee on March 24.

Brooks said today in her 13 years on the Oakland City Council she has seen extreme disparity in access to resources in different Oakland communities:

“I was really struck by the two Oaklands that exist here: between the haves and the have-nots.”

Those communities are starkly separated by geographical boundaries, she said. In East Oakland, the MacArthur freeway separates the more densely populated poor areas to the south from the largely wealthy and white areas in the hills. In the west, San Pablo Avenue splits the more affluent downtown areas from the poorer sections of West Oakland.

The richer areas of Oakland have benefited from years of investment, Brooks said, while the poorer areas lack basic resources like grocery stores and banks. Schools and parks in Oakland’s impoverished areas are declining and jobs are scarce.

At today’s news conference, Brooks was joined by community leaders who expressed enthusiastic support for a dedicated city department to address racial inequity.

Brooks distributed a statement from Oakland school board director Jumoke Hinton Hodge, who said work on racial equity within the school system won’t matter unless addressed in the larger community:

“We have over the last five years acknowledged this call to ensure racial equity and healing as our practice. … This commitment has resulted in reducing disproportionate suspensions of black and Latino boys, and increasing young people feeling cared for and not feeling invisible as a result of our efforts.”

Hodge added:

“Change in practices throughout all departments from teachers, administrators, security officers and our police force is the next bold step in racial healing and equity.”

The Rev. Deb Avery of the First Presbyterian Church of Oakland said Thursday:

“I’m really looking forward to what (the department) will mean for my mixed race congregation. … It’s my hope that Councilmember Brooks’ vision will set us on a path for deep and meaningful change.”

Several of Thursday’s speakers called out development policies specifically as impacting minority communities in Oakland, such as building high-rent housing in poor neighborhoods, which they said exacerbates gentrification and displacement of poor communities.

Others said its importance lay in simply addressing a problem that too often goes overlooked. The Rev. Daniel Buford of East Oakland’s Allen Temple Baptist Church said:

“We need a department that can detect … the existence of racism. … It exists but it can also be legal, and that’s a conundrum we have to solve. … This could set a precedent with other cities.”