Op/Ed By Leonard Brock –
Fighting poverty in our community is not simply giving people jobs or helping them access services, but equipping them with the tools needed to move toward self-sufficiency and, just as importantly, removing the roadblocks that stand in their way. The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) has made great strides in calling attention to one of the major barriers to people living in poverty, one that actively seeks to restrict them from gaining power. That is structural racism. However, calling attention to structural racism and addressing it are two separate issues.
While it is easy to see and understand the overt racism that comes through hateful words and actions, structural racism is a more subtle form embedded in our society. It has been built into societal structures through decades of overt racism that encoded discrimination in our public policies, institutional practices and societal norms. An unequivocal expert on this subject matter is Howard Eagle. Contrary to popular opinion, I, Leonard Brock, understand and respect Mr. Eagle’s position of the “tri-partite beast” he often refers to. This article is my attempt at aligning my thoughts on calling attention to structural racism with the actions we are taking to address it.
Structural racism sought and seeks to disempower people of color, and was and is effective in doing so. In the wake of World War II, Rochester’s growing African-American population faced housing discrimination that was largely permitted and protected by law. The effects still reverberate in our city today in the form of segregated neighborhoods and deep concentrations of poverty within the city of Rochester.
RMAPI identified the need to address structural racism as one of the guiding principles of our community-wide effort to reduce poverty by 50 percent in the next 15 years. We have seen our partners across the community take up this goal, including a new report from the Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives that spells out the wage gaps in Monroe County facing people of color, women and those persons with disabilities.
This report, which was a recommendation of RMAPI’s early work, sheds light on the wage disparities that exist across job sectors and among all levels of education. For example, for every $1 a white employee in the manufacturing sector makes, an African-American employee makes $0.68 and a Hispanic employee makes $0.65. This report found that among the roughly 29,000 full-year workers in Monroe County earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, 44 percent are minorities. This is an overrepresentation of our region, as 22 percent of all employed individuals in Monroe County are minorities.
While this report illustrates a major challenge for our region, the willingness of stakeholders from across the community to come together at the same table to address poverty has given us the drive and momentum to take it on and find solutions. The RMAPI employment working group has brought together representation from some of the region’s largest employers to discuss the wage disparities report and come up with concrete ways to respond, e.g., strengthening training programs, changing HR practices, diversifying senior-leadership, etc.
The structural racism underpinning our society and fueling the spread of poverty was built over decades, even centuries, and will not be undone overnight. This is a problem we must all understand and all work together to fix, and RMAPI has taken action to partner with others to address it in the workplace and some of the broader systems that fuel it, e.g., health care.
RMAPI worked with local artist Amen Ptah to create a video project that illustrates structural racism—as well as the other guiding principles to address trauma and build communities—through interviews with local experts, RMAPI stakeholders and members of our community. We encourage everyone to visit www.endingpovertynow.org and view the project, and then sign the pledge to support the RMAPI guiding principles.