Op-Ed | Overwhelming support for racial justice ballot initiatives serves as a mandate from the people of NYC

Discounted Election Day rides through Lime and Lyft
Photo by ET Rodriguez/Bronx Times

On Election Day, New York City residents made their voices heard in overwhelming fashion – voting for three ballot measures aimed at eliminating racial barriers and promoting racial equity. The measures were created by the NYC Racial Justice Commission, a charter revision commission formed in 2021 after yearslong citywide protests against racial injustice. After nine months of its two-year mandate to identify and root out structural racism, the Commission delivered their proposals to the office of the City Clerk to be voted on this year. These landslide results reflect the public’s commitment to a race-conscious city government and a desire for our city to further evidence-based approaches to upending the ongoing impacts of racial inequity.

On ballot measure 1, 72.3 percent of residents across the five boroughs voted to adopt a preamble to the NYC Charter which lays out the city’s values and vision as aspiring toward “a just and equitable city” for all New Yorkers. Just shy of three quarters of voters agreed that the statement should include the city goal of striving to remedy “past and continuing harms and to reconstruct, revise, and reimagine our foundations, structures, institutions, and laws to promote justice and equity for all New Yorkers.” In short, the vast majority of New Yorkers voted to see a clear commitment to disrupting racial inequity in our city’s foundational document. 

Ballot measure 2 was adopted with just shy of 70% of the vote, and will establish a Racial Equity Office and Commission, requiring the development of citywide and agency-specific Racial Equity Plans every two years. These plans, along with the establishment of the new Racial Equity Office, Commission, and Chief Equity Officer, aim to collect and report data related to equity, reduce racial disparities, and would support City Agencies in improving access to services for communities negatively affected by previous policies and actions. In a concrete way, New Yorkers have called for institutionalizing an accountable equity planning process for the City, and for us to do more to ameliorate past harms for communities of color.

Lastly, ballot measure 3 was adopted with 81% of the vote, with a strong majority in each borough of the city voting in favor of a proposal that will amend the City Charter to require the creation of a ‘True Cost of Living’ measure. The new metric will track a more accurate view of what it takes to get by in New York City without consideration of public, private, or informal assistance. Required to be reported alongside standards used to measure poverty and set public benefit eligibility by 2024, the measurement is intended to focus on dignity rather than poverty by taking into account traditionally under-reported essential needs such as childcare, housing, transportation, internet service, and more. Under-reporting the true cost of living disproportionately impacts the lives of Black, brown, and immigrant New Yorkers, and limits the impact of the government meeting the needs of its residents.

In all, the decisive results we saw on Election Day speak to a consensus that our city government should be justice-oriented, and to do so, it must operate in a race-conscious way. While political priorities understandably shift from administration to administration, the success of all three ballot initiatives underscore an appetite for government action to combat racism, a rejection of the manufactured hysteria around ‘CRT’ (Critical Race Theory), and a mandate for elected officials to prioritize racial equity work on behalf of their constituents.

Nevertheless, there are a minority of folks who believe we should ignore racial differences, treat all as human only, and be “colorblind” for the sake of equality. Their argument is that proposals like these are a waste of taxpayer dollars and contribute to bureaucratic bloat. Those voices, though, disproportionately come from communities who have benefited from a government that has more-or-less treated them fairly and as fully human. Many of the 20-30% of folks voting in opposition to either of the three measures may genuinely fail to understand the lived experiences of others who face systemic barriers daily. Yet as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said beautifully in 2018, “The people closest to the pain, should be the closest to the power, driving & informing the policymaking.” In the Bronx, home to the highest percentages of Hispanic (55%) and Black (29%) residents, and where 91% identify as people of color, the ballot initiatives passed by rates of 84%, 83%, and 90%, respectively. In Brooklyn, where people of color make up 65% of residents, the rates were 76%, 74%, and 83% in favor of adoption.

Those of us who voted ‘yes’ know that we cannot make inroads at curtailing racial injustice if we ignore the devastating impacts of systemic racism. The votes in favor of adding a clear statement of our values, institutionalizing anti-racism support, and adding more accurate metrics for actual cost-of-living, all make it clear to those responsible for running our city government that the public demands seriousness in addressing racial injustices. And we should be celebrating the victory as a mandate for how our City should be governed. 

Jeremy Chan-Kraushar works on racial equity initiatives for the NYC Department of Education. He has a M.Ed from Hunter College School of Education, a MPA from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, and a JD from CUNY School of Law.