EL PAT’S FORUM
by ELIZABETH PATTERSON
STRUCTURAL RACISM IN BENICIA
I have no doubt that the Benicia City Council members earnestly want to address structural racism. No one wants to be a racist and most people seek to avoid racists acts.
So, what is structural racism? I am going to describe two examples – one locally in Benicia and the other at the federal level.
Benicia City Council, August 2020
Last fall the city council responded to city staff’s recommendation to address the urgent and timely requests of the local group Benicia Black Lives Matter (BBLM). The three legs of staff recommendations are:
- establish a commission for equity and inclusiveness
- initiate through a consultant an “Equity Indicators” analysis in Benicia, and
- hire a part-time Equity and Diversity Manager, 30 hours/week at an estimated cost of $133,000 per year.
When the recommendation was presented to Council by staff and BBLM members many council members were quick to offer ideas about what they thought the BBLM needed. One could almost feel the insult that a white city council was telling the panel of four BBLM members what they needed. After some discussion, a 4/1 council majority put aside most of their objections and accepted the recommendations, but with amendments. (Council Meeting of Aug 25, 2020 Item 11A, Agenda / MINUTES / Video [Item 11.A beginning at minute 19:35]).
There was a lot of haggling over the cost of the part-time Equity and Diversity Manager. After lengthy discussion and in an effort to get to “yes” the council majority made the position temporary so future councils could determine if they wanted to restore the position to permanent status. It is the haggling over the cost that I want to highlight.
Compare Benicia City Council, December 2020…
Recently, the city council had a thorough and thoughtful discussion on updating the city’s impact fees. Details can be found at on the city website (Council Meeting of Dec 15, 2020 Item 15B, Agenda / MINUTES / Video [Item 15.A beginning at minute 54:30]).
Much time was taken up by the council discussing how much the city should impose fees to recover costs of the impacts from commercial and residential development. Staff provided data about what 100% recovery of costs would be and recommended in most cases the city impose less than 100%. These fees were established after nearly two years of staff and consultants reviewing other cities, evaluating city capitol needs and the nexus of the impact of new development or expansion of existing businesses. Seventy-five percent was the recommendation in most cases. This is customary in Benicia and not contrary to the General Plan goal that development pays its own way. The intent in the general plan is to recover the costs of development and more intense business activity impacts to parks, roads, pipes, wastewater and so forth from large developers – think Seeno or Valero. The real costs were not done in the past and Benicia taxpayers continue to pay the price for not assessing those impact fees to the new developments.
I agree with and have supported modest subsidization of individual residential development and small businesses. The subsidy should not be a giveaway but should fall in line with other Solano cities’ rates.
But you would not have heard that sentiment at the council meeting. A member of the public in the development business for small residential projects (small in terms of one to four units but not a major subdivision) spoke about the cost of materials and labor in addition to land costs, permit costs and, of course, the impact fees. Council members expressed understanding and sympathy for the challenge of residential development.
It is noteworthy that those same rising material costs and increasing labor costs are paid by the city, and yet the city is being asked to absorb the impact costs.
Structural Racism in Benicia
This is where the structural racism comes in. In December, the city staff was asked what – in approximate numbers – did the city get from all the impact fees charged in the last fiscal year. Staff hesitated in providing a number because it is complicated and risks comparing apples and oranges. The number eventually offered the council was approximately $230,000. And Vice Mayor Campbell noted that $230,000 was “nothing to the general fund” and the city could almost forgo impact fees.
But go back to August and BBLM: Council members said that $133,000 (highest pay level for a position with benefits) was too expensive and we couldn’t afford it.
Impact fees cannot be spent on anything but capital projects. But if the impact fees are largely subsidized and the city has to pay the market rate for material and labor, taxpayers pick up the remainder of the subsidized capital costs. Without adequate impact fees, we live with poor and unsafe roads for bicyclists and pedestrians and other capital infrastructure such as completing the library basement, ensuring water supply capacity and parks. Inadequate funded development impacts pushes the needed capitol infrastructure costs to the general fund – forgoing $230,000 is a cost to other programs such as art and culture, human services, adequate planning staff, retaining employees and so on.
The structural racism is clear. A council will say the city cannot afford programs that might have been beneficial to Black and brown people, but can afford to subsidize market rate housing and businesses. You get the idea.
Structural racism is this kind of unconscious bias in decision making that we can afford some things that are beneficial to the mostly white Benicia and cannot afford programs that would help Blacks gain parity with white wealth.
When the city completes its study on Equity Indicators, we will see more clearly and concretely what impediments to racial equity exist in Benicia. But it is apparent that not adequately funding programs and staff to investigate racial equity and make recommendations is good example.
Structural Racism in Washington, D.C.
The Federal example is so blatant that I will take less time to highlight here. At present, Congress will not provide COVID-19 relief funds to state and city governments to help pay public school teachers, public safety, public health and so on to provide services for all residents. In this case, the disproportionate effects of COVID_19 on black, brown, indigenous, pacific islanders and women is classic, and shines a light on structural racism at the highest levels.
We can agree on the problem that there are massive disparities between people driving buses, working in grocery stores, nursing homes, assisted living, hospitals, janitors – and the majority of higher paid workers able to work at home. Add to this problem the burden carried by women – white, brown, Black – who often have lost their job because it is a lower-end job or can’t work because of the cost of childcare and the need to provide online schooling.
City and state agencies are running out of funds to provide childcare, unemployment, teachers and substitute teachers, social workers, and other essential workers – all of which will help with depression and increasing suicides. And Congress refuses to provide relief funds to states so that this can be done.
In addition, some experts say that stimulus checks are not sufficiently targeted toward those most in need. To extract stimulus checks as a concession from Republicans, Democrats were forced not only to forfeit state and local aid but also to shorten the duration of the enhanced unemployment program to three months from four.
That is structural racism in Washington, D.C. America has been doing that since we used US Bonds to finance the slave trade. We have done that by preventing Blacks from moving into residential development with good schools and thus handicapping the next generation in education. Others have catalogued and documented federal actions that have led to the wealth gap between Blacks and whites.
The next time you hear someone say we can’t afford a program that is directed at helping to close the wealth gap, be sure to respond that we can’t afford not to.
This is the time for us to shine and do the right thing and I believe we will. . . 2021 is our New Year for getting it right after all.