The blog of the Urban Institute
February 8, 2021

To Truly Advance Racial Equity, City Leaders Need to Confront Racist Symbols

February 8, 2021

On January 6, when insurrectionists breached the US Capitol, many Americans gasped at the sight of a man swinging the Confederate flag outside the Senate floor—an act Confederate soldiers couldn’t even do during the Civil War.

This image emphasized why advancing racial equity will take not only transformation of tangible programs, systems, and structures but will also require symbolic rejection of racism and bias—from Robert E. Lee’s name on elementary schools to geographic landmarks named with racial slurs. In an interview with the Washington Post, Christian Vida, a curator at the Valentine museum in Richmond, Virginia, said, “Public art contributes to private thought, and private thought influences public policy.” This, Vida suggests, allows us to connect the dots to persistent inequities.

Nowhere is the work of advancing racial equity more urgent or more complex than in our cities, where local officials face the task of leading their residents through an ongoing pandemic with far-reaching social and economic ramifications. We know what work is necessary for cities to advance racial equity: investing in social services, prioritizing public health, reimagining the role of police, fixing public school funding structures, and implementing job guarantees, among other emerging, evidence-based efforts.

With all these urgent matters on the docket, it’s reasonable to ask whether it makes sense for city leaders to prioritize confronting and dismantling racist symbols. But city leaders have specific obligations to their community members. So many of our citizens still live under threat of violence, abuse, and neglect, often at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve them.

When city leaders remove symbols of racism and bigotry from public life and public spaces, it sends a message that they will no longer tolerate (much less valorize) biased, racist practices. Out of that message comes relief, a collective exhale, which creates space for people inside and outside city hall to begin making desperately needed, tangible progress in our institutions.

Recognizing the national inflection point around systemic racism

For nearly a year, the pandemic has subjected Americans to daily reports of their fellow citizens slowly suffocating in overstretched intensive care units. In that time, we also bore witness to the horrific real-time suffocation of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, giving rise to a long-overdue national reckoning with the legacy of white supremacy.

In response, organizational and corporate leaders quickly released statements in solidarity with Black communities and other communities of color, including here at the Urban Institute. Companies have pledged billions of dollars to new equity initiatives. The Biden-Harris administration centered racial equity in its policy platforms, issuing an executive order for an all-of-government approach to addressing systemic racism.

Representation of Black communities and other communities of color in media and entertainment has ticked up as racist symbols, like the Mississippi state flag and the John C. Calhoun statue in Charleston’s Marion Square, have come down. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act provides $2 million to form a commission to rename military bases that honor Confederate leaders, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has made $250 million available to help communities reimagine the country’s approach to monuments and memorials.

“Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name” have been familiar refrains for years now, so it is hard to know why the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were such critical inflection points. Whether it had to do with COVID-19 making us all so keenly attuned to the horrors of losing breath or because of increased social media consumption during quarantine, a groundswell of people—beyond those who would see themselves as immediately affected—began to recognize racial injustice is a collective problem. There seems to be a real, growing understanding that racism is not just about individual bad actors but is systemic in nature.

How city leaders can be moral leaders

Even before this moment of reckoning, in our work with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, we were already in conversation with several city leaders about their quandaries in figuring out what to do with symbols of racism and Confederate heritage in public squares. In many cases, these were hulking monuments—statues not just constructed of durable materials but also fortified by legal structures that made removing or relocating them extraordinarily difficult.

We wrote a teaching case exploring the choices mayors made about when and how to use their authority or challenge its constraints and the conversations they organized within their communities around these fraught relics. We also wrote an abridged case and a practitioner’s guide for community groups to sponsor these types of discussions.

Events over the past year have made these choice points and conversations even more vital. Moral leadership is urgently needed in America today and is a part of the work of leading cities. Urban’s work on community engaged methods is part of a movement to recognize that leadership in communities extends well beyond elected officials and includes the expertise of  communities themselves. This means community members can and must be understood as critical sources of engaged moral leadership on the issues affecting them.

Once racial equity—in both tangible and symbolic forms—is truly on the agenda, city leaders can make real progress toward creating a just and equitable world. But getting there will require concerted collective action by many actors, as well as sustained effort throughout the COVID-19 recovery process and beyond.

The statue of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart is removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia on July 7, 2020. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has ordered the "immediate removal" of Confederate statues on Monument Avenue in order to "expedite the healing process for the city." The mayor said that as the Southern capital during the Civil War, Richmond has been "burdened with that legacy." (Photo by RYAN M. KELLY / AFP via Getty Images)

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