The hundreds of thousands of protesters who have flooded the streets in past weeks have forced a fundamental reckoning with the institutions and culture of white supremacy, both here in New York City and across the country. The killings of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are just the most recent reminders of the ugly racism and systemic injustice that millions of Black and Brown New Yorkers face every single day. Their deaths are not anomalies in a system that prioritizes power over justice.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced recently that the city would cut the New York Police Department’s budget and reinvest that money in communities most affected by police violence. This would be an important step forward, but only if it is the precursor to a long-term plan to dismantle deep racial inequities and end the over-policing of communities of color that is inextricably bound to the challenges the families we work with face.
We must ensure families have the essentials they need to care for their children, such as stable housing, food, tutoring, opportunities for recreation, and easy access to health and mental health care. Parents know what their kids need, but too often Black and Brown families are left deprived of the fundamental resources they need to survive. We must reach families before they are in crisis.
Social, educational and economic supports in vulnerable communities have been de-funded for decades. Families are tremendously stressed by the constant battle to eat, to be housed, to survive — let alone make school meetings or behavioral health appointments. This precarity often leads to crises that result in child welfare or police involvement, exacerbating the crisis.
Now is also the time to invest in critical frontline services that address the underlying trauma and chronic illnesses wrought by racism and economic deprivation. Currently, calls to address incidents such as mental health issues and homelessness go to armed officers without specialized training in these areas. These police interventions commonly fail to resolve the problem at hand. They exacerbate trauma and too often lead to violence. Those who respond should have the training, expertise and cultural competence to help families not only survive the crisis in front of them, but carve out a path for long term stability and success.
While nonprofits on the ground in New York City are essential to rebuilding communities ravaged by COVID-19 and reeling from police violence, I must acknowledge my own position of privilege as a white man leading JCCA, one of New York City’s largest child and family service providers. White people in social services have a lot of work to do to promote equity within their own organizations and disentangle our work from the institutions that perpetuate systemic injustice. We must leverage our power, our roots in the community, and our commitment to our neighbors as we rededicate ourselves to race equity in our programs and among our staff.
This is a life-or-death moment for New York City. COVID-19 has laid bare the failures of our institutions to protect communities of color, who are at even greater risk under the looming contraction of city and state finances. But police accountability reforms and modest police budget redistribution will not be enough. If we, as a city, truly want to uproot systemic oppression, we should not hesitate to invest in the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
Ronald Richter is the CEO of the human services nonprofit JCCA, and former commissioner of New York City’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services.