POLICYMAKERS AND EXPERTS agreed at a legislative hearing on Monday: structural racism continues to be a problem in Massachusetts, impacting everything from economic inequality to incarceration rates to health disparities.
But it became clear during the inaugural hearing of the Joint Committee on Racial Equity, Civil Rights, and Inclusion that there is far less consensus about how to address the problem. Speakers suggested a wide range of proposals, affecting areas from data collection to affordable housing.
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, noted that in soliciting ideas from public defenders on how to address racism, he received dozens of responses touching on topics ranging from courts and the foster care system to education and the environment. “No single approach is going to solve every problem,” he said.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston opened the hearing along with committee co-chair Rep. Bud Williams, a Springfield Democrat, by stating the persistence of racism in society. “We acknowledge structural racism and exclusion are marbled throughout the different institutions and existing policies of our Commonwealth,” she said.
But Chang-Diaz, in interviewing one witness, also acknowledged that setting priorities for addressing racism is challenging. “There’s such a wide array of potential areas of focus for this committee,” she said.
Speaker after speaker offered dozens of potential policy solutions, leaving numerous directions in which committee members could go.
Boston Mayor Kim Janey testified about the need for Boston to diversify its public procurement processes, while urging lawmakers to consider a bill expanding opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses in public construction projects. She said there is a need to consider policies including offering in-state tuition to immigrants without legal status, imposing additional police reforms, and listening more to small business owners about their needs.
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, emphasized bills that would lower the high cost of prisoner telephone calls, create an ombudsman to oversee public health standards in jails, and address the excessive use of force in prisons, among others. “Mass incarceration is the most poignant example of structural racism in society,” she said.
Tammy Tai, deputy director of King Boston, which is building a monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Boston, asked lawmakers to support a commission to study making reparations to the black community. “The transatlantic slave trade unleashed more than 400 years of systemic oppression based on race,” Tai said. “We believe the time for reparations is now.”
Many speakers stressed that problems that affect society overall are worse in the Black and Hispanic communities. Pamela Schwartz of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness said Blacks represent 8 percent of the western Massachusetts population and 20 percent of the homeless population. Hispanic and Latino residents are 17 percent of the population and 53 percent of those who are homeless. Schwartz urged lawmakers to immediately extend legislative protections against evictions, which are scheduled to expire with the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency on Tuesday.
Gail Latimore, executive director of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation in Dorchester, stressed the importance of a bill that would double a fee on real estate transfers and use the money to address climate change and affordable housing.
Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, argued for regulation of “racially biased facial recognition technology.” Rep. Orlando Ramos, a Springfield Democrat, said if sports betting is legalized, bars and restaurants should be allowed to host sports betting, rather than just casinos and digital apps, since that is the only way for business owners of color to benefit from the industry.
Several speakers noted the disproportionate impact the state’s child welfare system has in minority communities. Susan Elsen, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said mandated reporting, in which certain professionals are required to report suspected child abuse and neglect to the Department of Children and Families, has been called “the stop and frisk for Black and brown women,” referring to the practice of police officers patting down men of color, often without reasonable suspicion of a crime.
Elsen said one client told her organization, “If you’re a mom and you’re Black and poor in Boston, you’ve been filed on.” A commission is currently considering expanding mandated reporting laws in Massachusetts, and Elsen urged lawmakers to consider any recommendations through a racial equity lens.
Several representatives of the Asian-American community urged lawmakers to think about anti-Asian racism in developing policies, whether that means disaggregating data to specify which segment of the Asian-American community someone belongs to or enhancing representation on public boards and commissions. Too often, said Sam Hyun, chairman of the Massachusetts Asian American Commission, “We’re left out of the policy discussion, we’re left out of relief efforts, we’re left out of research studies.”
Segun Idowu, president and CEO of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, urged adoption of a range of policies, from establishing a public bank (which could prioritize expanding access to banking services), to establishing equity in public contracting, to ensuring representation on public boards. Racial injustice, he said, has been codified into law by state legislatures across the country. “It can be dismantled therefore by law,” Idowu said. “It was not mandated by God nor is it predetermined by nature.”