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Deja vu on racial equity for region that needs it

I want to be optimistic that this will turn out better than history might indicate. Really, I do.

And no, I’m not talking about the Trump administration.

I’m talking about Buffalo’s Racial Equity Roundtable report which concludes that "equity is better for our bottom line."

Of course, it is. That conclusion follows decades of national research showing that closing economic gaps benefits both cities and their suburbs.

But it also follows local efforts ranging from the multiracial "Buffalo conversations" and "study circles" of the 1990s to SUNY Buffalo State’s "black crosses" project and week of dialogue on race and social justice last year.

And yet, as the new report documents, this region remains starkly divided along racial lines when it comes to education, poverty, criminal justice and just about every other socioeconomic measure.

So what will be different this time?

"We’re viewing this as a ‘grass tops’ strategy," said Alphonso O’Neil-White, Roundtable chairman, referring to the companies and high-level executives – not minions – involved this time.

For example, a business leadership task force of major employers working on economic inclusion contains not just the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, which might be expected to join on moral grounds, but also more bottom-line oriented employers like Rich Products and M&T Bank. Apparently they understand that, as the report puts it, "metro areas with high rates of racial inclusion have positive growth rates in employment and population."

That’s an old message, dating back to the National League of Cities analyses of the 1990s and books of that era like "Citistates" and "Cities Without Suburbs" that warned of the economic implications of not addressing division and disparity. Maybe Western New York is ready to catch up.

O’Neil-White is clear that the Roundtable does not think it has solutions to impose. Rather, it wants others to join in crafting strategies to close the gaps after getting "the right people in the right rooms."

But the "right people" are not just corporate bigwigs, though their buy-in is indispensable because that’s where the resources must come from.

Henry L. Taylor Jr., director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies, has delved into these issues for decades. He said the report does a good job of outlining the challenges and providing a "pool of evidence and data" corroborating what he and others have long known. But Taylor has been a consistent advocate of "neighborhood based" solutions that are funded by major foundations but guided by the experiences of the people living there who know best what is needed. He calls anything else "unacceptable."

How well this initiative incorporates that vision will determine its success.

But in any case, the data already collected means it shouldn’t be hard to grade the effort. O’Neil-White, the former HealthNow New York CEO, pointed to improvements in measures like arrest rates and graduation rates – where racial gaps are huge – as objective yardsticks by which the Roundtable effort can be judged.

Perhaps that, alone, will make this effort more productive than past ones. As CEOs like to say, what gets measured gets done. And if it’s not done, we’ll all know.


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