Professor Susan Gooden of Virginia Commonwealth University has studied the reluctance of governments to address social inequity. She urges government managers to attack racism head-on.
Susan Gooden noticed that people who work in government get uncomfortable, even nervous, when race or racism enters a conversation. That means public policies and practices that affect and are affected by racism go unaddressed, even unnoticed.
Gooden studied the problem and looked for examples of good practices at the federal, state and local levels of government. That work resulted in her 2014 book, “Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government.” Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, begun in 2005, is one of three model efforts she explores.
Then-Mayor Greg Nickels was warned that if city officials went looking for bias in their departments, they’d find it, and if they admitted to it, the city could be sued. He was also warned that talking about race and justice would make people angry, which it did. But it would also allow the city to identify and fix some of its problems, so he went ahead with it.
Administrators realized they updated streetlights in mostly high-income neighborhoods first. So they shifted the starting point south, which means a broader range of neighborhoods get new lamps first.
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The city increased translations so people with limited English proficiency can participate in discussions and programs.
Changes in usual practices allowed the city to more than triple the number of contractors it does business with that are owned by women or members of minority groups.
Gooden is a professor of public administration and policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and she’s president of the American Society for Public Administration. She believes strongly in the role that government managers can play in building a better society.
Since the book came out, Gooden has been traveling the country talking about her work. I met her at the University of Washington, after a talk she gave at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance.
At the UW, she showed a slide that demonstrated how every area of life affects every other. To simplify, education quality affects who winds up in the criminal-justice system. And interaction with that system can affect economic prospects, which affects the housing a person or family can get, which decides the environment children grow up in, which affects health, which affects education. And all of those effects, negative or positive, cascade through generations of a family.
Race plays a significant role in that web of interacting forces, so if the country is going to have more equity, government has to get past its fear and be proactive.
Ideally, race and social equity would be a normal part of discussions within government and between government and the community. And talk would lead to concrete differences in policy and practice to eliminate racial inequity.
Gooden said Seattle is on a path toward the ideal. She spent time in 2012 studying the history of the Race and Social Justice Initiative and traced the roots back to Norm Rice’s work as a council member, and later as mayor, to address inequality. Paul Schell succeeded Rice as mayor in 1998, which was also the year Washington voters passed the anti-affirmative-action Initiative 200.
Schell started a series of community conversations about race that brought to the surface serious racial conflicts in the community.
Nickels, who followed Schell in 2001, decided the city needed to address racial inequity head-on. Nickels had worked for Rice as a legislative aide before serving on the King County Council or being elected mayor.
Nickels told Gooden that during his campaign he saw how unequal the city was in education experiences depending on the neighborhood, and he learned how differently people saw the city, based on their race.
So, he created the initiative and put race in the name to be clear about where many inequalities were centered.
Training sessions taught city employees about institutional and structural racism, defined by the initiative as “policies, practices and procedures that work to the benefit of white people and to the detriment of people of color, often unintentionally or inadvertently.”
Uncomfortable conversations, even conflicts followed, but over time the ideas took hold. It’s still a work in progress, but now other governments come to learn from Seattle’s example, Gooden said. “I have optimism about the spread,” she said, “but I’m concerned about the pace.”
Anyone who’s tired of the impact of inequality should hope for a faster pace.