The students leading the way in honoring Dr. King's legacy
Last year, as we observed the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, we also commemorated passage of the Fair Housing Act, adopted in Congress one week after he was killed, to confront the stark and ongoing reality of segregation. Fifty years later, New York City, like most of the United States, remains starkly segregated.
To mark the anniversary and attempt to attend to its enduring call, my office (working together with many of my colleagues & civil rights organizations) issued a report: Desegregating NYC: 12 Steps Toward a More Inclusive City. The report outlines housing, education, and infrastructure policies to achieve a more integrated city.
After decades of simply pretending, we’ve started to have some honest conversations. These can be painful, because they require us to look clearly at just how unequal and segregated our housing & schools remain. And, of course, they highlight the enormous gap between the values we espouse, and the reality we live in. But they are essential to doing anything real about it.
NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) launched the Where We Live NYC, described as a “collaborative planning process led by the City of New York to better understand how challenges like segregation and discrimination impact New Yorker’s everyday lives. We will use that information to develop policy solutions that advance opportunity for all.”
We’re on a far better path than last year for what I believe is one of the most important fair housing policies of the moment: dramatically strengthening New York’s rent regulation laws. Thanks to the work so many people did to elect a progressive, Democratic State Senate, we have a real chance to close the loopholes in the rent laws, protect hundreds of thousands of families from displacement, and keep gentrification from re-segregating many of our neighborhoods.
We brought the Where We Live NYC toolkit to Gowanus last month for a conversation about what apply fair housing principles to the Gowanus rezoning might look like, and how we might move forward to a community far more integrated than today -- which, really, should not be that hard, since what we have now are the Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Boerum Hill neighborhoods of multi-million dollar brownstones, owned mostly by white families like mine, next to the Gowanus, Wyckoff Gardens, and Warren Street NYCHA developments, with so many dilapidated buildings, occupied mostly by African-American and Latinx families. One critical way to judge the upcoming Gowanus rezoning will be through this lens.
In Community School District 15, after a year of inclusive planning (including many challenging conversations), the D15 Middle School Diversity Plan is going into effect as we speak, the Department of Education’s most ambitious effort to date to confront segregation and create a fairer system. I’ve been really encouraged by my conversations with fifth-grade families throughout the district, as they toured more schools than before, and submitted their applications. I believe it really can be a model for the city as a whole (and I’m grateful that the School Diversity Advisory Group is preparing a new round of recommendations to push us forward).
We should not start patting ourselves on the back anytime soon, just because we’ve started some conversations, or taken a few good but small steps. On most of the 12 Steps Toward Integrating NYC, we haven’t done anything at all. The gap we have to travel remains gaping.
And, of course, in the Trump regime, it is often necessary to fight white nationalism empowered from the White House itself, unleashing racial harassment and hatred all across the country -- a fundamentally necessary fight, to be sure, but one that can distract us from confronting the hard work we have to do in our own communities.
But I’m still sure, this MLK Day, that this is the right path. I was reminded powerfully of it on Thursday evening, at a forum with students from IntegrateNYC and Teens Take Charge, the student wing of the contemporary school integration movement. Mindful of some of the pitfalls of simply seeing integration of “moving bodies around” (articulated well in this recent article), these student leaders have developed the “5Rs of Real Integration.” They are clear-eyed about the harm that segregation and racism causes. And they are very powerful and inspiring examples of the future that real integration can bring.
Can’t think of a better way to honor Dr. King’s legacy than by working hard to follow their lead.