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Editorial: Progress toward the goal of racial equity is one key to the region’s economic future

In the end, it’s about breaking cycles: of poverty, of low expectations, of persistent crime and more. That’s the ambitious and worthy aim of a new effort to deal with racial disparities in Western New York and, in so doing, to rouse a slumbering economic and social force that would secure the region’s ongoing revival.

The nascent, broad-based effort was launched by the Community Foundation. But it has recruited many partners from around Western New York and represents a true community effort to address difficult social issues that harm individuals and undermine the fabric and prosperity of the entire region.

“This is not just the right thing to do,” the foundation’s president, Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, told The News. “It’s the smart thing to do.” That is undeniable.
Significantly, while this is a public-spirited effort to address persistent problems, it is not a government-driven project. More than 30 people, representing government, business, nonprofit agencies, educational institutions and the religious community have joined the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable.

The roundtable’s chairman is Alphonso O’Neil-White, former president and CEO of HealthNow New York, the parent of BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York. He couched the aims of the group in the frustrations of repeatedly running into the walls of intractable problems:

“How many rooms have you sat in where people have raised issues, concerns and problems, and there’s nobody in the room that can do anything about it?” he asked. The goal of this organization, he said, is to do something useful about racial inequity and the daily consequences it imposes on everyone in Western New York.

The work has already begun. Seventy organizations, businesses, nonprofits and government agencies have taken part in training offered by the roundtable. More advanced trainings help prepare leaders for the actual work of addressing racial inequalities in their organizations. That’s when things will start to happen, Dedecker said.

That work will be hard, indeed. The issues are complex and intertwined. They resist easy answers. At its launch, with a report titled “The Racial Equity Dividend: Buffalo’s Great Opportunity,” the roundtable offers no solutions, instead producing the kind of detailed information that is required for any effort to succeed.
Comparing white and non-white residents, the report looks at English proficiency, teenagers who are behind bars, people not living in concentrated poverty, median family incomes and more. In each case racial minorities fare dramatically worse.

For example, 40 percent of white fourth-graders in Erie and Niagara counties are considered proficient in English. The figure for non-white fourth-graders: 19 percent. And 29 percent of white 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of crimes are sent to prison, compared with 50 percent of non-white teenagers.
The median family income of white residents is almost $72,000 while that of non-whites is about $33,000. That disparity carries consequences.

Among the areas the roundtable wants to influence are education and job readiness, criminal justice and safety, quality of life and neighborhoods, and income and wealth. Success in alleviating the problems associated with these areas would upend dynamics that retard growth in the area.

With success, money that now goes to social services, health care and prisons could be spent on job growth, education and recreation. The property tax base would expand. The regional workforce would be wealthier and more employable, a critical need as Buffalo transitions into a high-tech economy.

It’s also important to understand that while success could produce many benefits, it would also help to avoid the kind of crises that have befallen other communities where racial inequity has fomented upheaval. Think Ferguson, Mo., where years of unequal policing helped to produce violence after a white police officer shot and killed an African-American teenager. That hasn’t happened in Buffalo; the work of this panel could help to ensure that it never does.

Success will be measured by changes in the metrics that the roundtable reported. It won’t be either immediate or total. But even some progress can make a  significant difference to those harmed by racial inequities and to the community that is otherwise hobbled by it.

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