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Why I signed up to launch the NYCLU’s new Racial Justice Center

We are strengthening our commitment to eliminating racism in every corner of NY.

By: Lanessa Owens-Chaplin Director, Racial Justice Center

The NYCLU exists to defend our Constitution’s guarantees of civil liberties and civil rights. But we also recognize that when the drafters wrote the Constitution they did not intend to protect Black and Indigenous people.

The decision to exclude Black, Indigenous and other communities of color from the foundation of democracy is just one part of our nation’s story. Since our inception, white supremacy ideology has actively oppressed marginalized groups, creating intentional, consequential, and long-standing harm. Over the decades, legalized schemes of racism may have been eradicated, but white supremacy ideologies remain. Covert racist policies now uphold white supremacy beneath the pretense of fairness.

This is why the NYCLU is launching a newly dedicated Racial Justice Center (RJC). Through our work at the new RJC, we will strengthen our commitment to eliminating racism in every corner of New York. As the inaugural director of the RJC, I will challenge the ideologies of white supremacy and the impacts of racism, leveraging the NYCLU’s tools of litigation, community advocacy, legislative initiatives, and public education.

We have yet to right the wrongs of the past and truly confront the magnitude of the life, wealth, and opportunity extracted through oppression in this nation’s founding.

New York’s History of Racism

New Yorkers boast of our state’s history as a leader in the abolitionist movement, but overt racism has remained prevalent across our state for generations. Take the practice of redlining. Under redlining, the government denied people in entire neighborhoods access to housing loans because as they put it those neighborhoods had an “infiltration of Negroes. ”

This practice prevented many Black families from gaining the wealth that home ownership provides working- and middle-class families, and it kept neighborhoods deeply segregated. Redlining infected every corner of New York, including major cities like New York City, Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rochester. In many cases, the segregation and wealth disparities persist today.

Transportation policy in New York had similar aims. Robert Moses led New York’s interstate highway infrastructure program in which highway construction decimated entire Black and Brown communities, destroyed Black wealth and funneled it into the suburbs.

Then there’s the state’s pernicious segregation of schools. Sixty years ago, more than 10,000 white mothers marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to protest against a very modest school desegregation program. Today New York City has some of the most segregated schools in the nation.

Although blatant enactments of racism are now unlawful, structural racism is still embedded in New York’s laws and policies, including land use laws, environmental impacts of infrastructure, and school admissions testing that all keep segregation thriving. Systemic racial discrimination exists through coded language and New York State government bureaucracy. And it’s all backed up by law enforcement agencies with a long, racist past that continues today.

Backlash to a Racial Justice Movement

In 2020, George Floyd’s harrowing cry for his mom was heard across the world and it set off one the most significant protest movements in recent history. The killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY, Daniel Prude in Rochester, NY, and others across the country fueled the civil unrest, as people protested and demanded racial justice.

But just three years later, in response to demands for fairness and dignity, proponents of white supremacy have double-down on maintaining our flawed system.

New York legislators rolled back their commitments to racial justice by spewing “tough-on-crime,” racially coded rhetoric and backtracking on statewide bail reform. Political leaders in both parties have also re-invoked the misguided and dangerous assertion that more officers, more stops, and more aggression from law enforcement are the ways to stop crime, combat homelessness, or deal with mental health struggles. This is true even though research shows these practices increase harm to Black and Indigenous people and people of color.

Nationally, we’ve witnessed familiar playbooks. Those leading the backlash attempt to divide and conquer, pitting communities of color against one another. This is on display in regressive decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court on issues like affirmative action, and environmental justice. It’s also found in the attack on critical race theory and the anti-Black movement to ban books that teach historical truths about race in America. Conservative states have done all this while sparing Asian American and Pacific Islander curriculum bills from those same attacks.

What We Do When the World Isn’t Watching

Long after the nationwide spotlight on racial justice has faded, the threats to our goal of achieving a truly racially just society persist. The test of our work goes beyond our actions in the midst of a protest movement like we saw in 2020 and extends into what we do when the world isn’t watching.

We understand the importance of having a space where talented, dedicate staff, and organizational leaders wake up every morning thinking about our racial justice goals and the strategies to achieve them. This work includes looking within the organization to ensure our internal policies and practices work to dismantle white-dominant values and amplify the perspectives, experiences, and contributions of Black, Indigenous and people of color.

As a historically white-led organization, we acknowledge that there’s internal and external work to do to make sure we are responsible stewards of our mission. The RJC will continue to look inward by making sure racial justice is a part of the NYCLU’s organizational culture. And we will work to ensure that across the organization, racial justice is baked into our strategic decisions and the campaigns we choose to take on.

My Story

As a Black woman raised in a segregated community, in Syracuse, New York, I have firsthand experience of what it’s like to exist within a racialized society. One of my formative memories was witnessing dozens of my classmates get prosecuted under the racially-biased application of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). I watched as loosely connected young Black teenage boys were labeled gang members and hammered with severe sentences for committing low-level poverty offenses. This experience forever impacted the trajectory of my life and landed me on a pathway to relentlessly advocate for racial justice.

As an attorney, I led efforts to right the wrongs of harsh and excessive sentences handed down as a result of the racialized “super predator narrative”. As the former Deputy Secretary for the New York State Assembly Speaker, I led statewide initiatives to ameliorate the negative impacts of race-based policies and worked to usher in racially-centered solutions.

Then in 2018, I joined the NYCLU to lead our Interstate 81 campaign. The I-81 viaduct in Syracuse stretches just one mile, but it brought generations of harm to a working-class Black community. The I-81 Project, demonstrates how structural racism permeates every aspect of our people’s lives, from the air we breathe to the schools we attend, to the homes we live in and the jobs we do.

For the last five years, I’ve led the NYCLU’s Environmental Justice Project. We’ve fought to lessen the impact of environmental racism by challenging policies that maintain and foster segregation through mechanisms like land use laws and zoning policies. Through the Environmental Justice Project, we also brought litigation against the Trump administration’s rollbacks to environmental protections.

The Environmental Justice Project was also at the center of our Indigenous rights work advocating for equitable funding for schools that serve predominately Indigenous students. And we also sought out Black justice projects to repair past harms through restorative justice initiatives.

Looking Ahead

The RJC will be our homebase where we continue and expand this work. We will staff it with racial justice issue experts who will think cross-functionally and cross-departmentally about how to address complex racial justice issues. The RJC will prioritize uplifting groups and organizations led by marginalized New Yorkers and we will use our expertise to join the collaborative racial justice movements across New York.

The RJC has several priorities for 2024. We will center our attention on getting justice for Black people through the fight for restorative justice.  We will expand our desegregation work, widen our advocacy for fair funding in predominantly Indigenous schools. And we will fight to end environmental racism by addressing and rectifying our state’s history of decimating entire communities of color to make way for highway projects.

These are just some of the areas of racial justice we will build out as we begin to develop the RJC. I hope you will support us in the fight.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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Civil Liberties Union