Statement by Sarah Rosen Wartell, President of the Urban Institute

Statement by Sarah Rosen Wartell, President of the Urban Institute

Racism’s pervasive and ugly face is revealed most starkly in moments like these—but Black Americans know it as a constant fear and persistent pain.

Amy Cooper weaponizing race against Christian Cooper in Central Park; Ahmaud Arbery’s violent shooting by neighbors, to which prosecutors turned a blind eye until sufficiently shamed; Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd while Chauvin and his colleagues ignored the crowd’s frantic warnings about his dangerous and illegal hold; and Breonna Taylor’s senseless death at the hands of Louisville police. These are not aberrations. They are the newest headlines; they are the ones we know about; they are the latest tragedies in our cruel history.

We cannot put slavery behind us because its legacy surrounds us: it is mapped across our geography; it structures our schools and workplaces; it is reflected in bank accounts and in the health and living conditions that disproportionately expose so many Black Americans to COVID-19. Racism still shapes our subtle or explicit expectations of one another, is embedded in our mindsets, and influences our daily choices consciously or unconsciously. 

There is much about racism and its consequences that I cannot fully understand. I do know that today, people I care for—and people I am responsible for serving—are hurting. I imagine it must be especially terrorizing for Black Americans to be confronted with evidence, time and time again, that many entrusted with the power of the state do not value their lives and that the institutions intended to protect people’s safety and provide justice too frequently do the opposite.

I lead an institution committed to finding and deploying evidence objectively to advance opportunity, close equity gaps, and create shared prosperity. At the Urban Institute, we try to help those driving change toward justice and equity hold institutions and their leaders accountable with facts and evidence, disaggregating the data to reveal whom policies serve and whom they fail, where interventions and remedies reach, which approach makes the most difference. 

But what does objectivity mean in this context? It means investigating long-held assumptions, tackling root causes, listening to and taking guidance from new voices, ceding some authority to other forms of expertise, seeing evidence in lived experience as well as numerical data. Objectivity requires we name racism when we see it, that we explain how its roots run through the American experience, understanding its lasting influence in ourselves and our own institution. Objectivity requires that we go further than ever before to confront and eliminate racism in policing, schools, housing markets, and other institutions across society.

The phrase “we must do more” lacks specificity, usually indicating we do not know what more to do.  I am embarrassed to say I wrote it myself, last week in a note to colleagues. And while I do not have the answers, I understand that as this institution’s current leader, and as a white woman in America, I am responsible for doing the work. I cannot and do not expect Black Americans or Black colleagues to carry the burden or draft the battle plan. I must listen to my Black colleagues and to every person who faces the injustices of racism, discrimination, or dehumanization. But I cannot devolve responsibility. It is my job, and the job of white leaders everywhere, to figure out what more we can do from our positions, and do it. 

The Urban Institute does not use one institutional voice. Our tradition is to lift up many voices, even disagreeing voices, shaped by inquiry and evidence, and I hope my colleagues will continue to share their own reflections and insights on our website.

We need to ensure that research, evidence and analytics can drive permanent, positive change as we work to dismantle racism. As long as I am in this role, I will steer this institution to use its capabilities, credibility, and voice to move our society toward justice.