Racial Justice in Peekskill

Dear Mayor Foster, Council members and City leaders,

Thank you for listening and asking questions last night.  We have a long way to go but it was an important step in the process. 

Councilman Schuder noted last night that you can’t start at Step 15.  I couldn’t agree more.  That’s why I left copies of two short articles for Mayor Foster and Mr. Finn last night and am sending them to all of you attached to this message.  The articles are “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh and “Whiteness as an ‘Unmarked’ Category” by Ruth Frankenberg.  I’m including another on “distancing behaviors” by Jim Edler. 

The Cortlandt Peekskill Anti-Racism Collaborative is making a concerted effort to create a safe space for educating ourselves about institutional and structural racism, and actively working to undo it where opportunities arise.  Our own learning about racism started with understanding white privilege.  I ask that you take the time to learn a bit about that as well.  The privilege that white people have in this society makes us blind to the experiences of people of color.  We might think we understand racism and think that if we aren’t actively working against people of color then we aren’t part of the problem.  But our unearned white privilege is a key to the problem, which is why I said last night that if we aren’t actively working against institutionalized racism then we are part of the problem.  Until we can understand that we have little hope to unravel the rest.  As you read the short articles (I hope you do) pay attention to your own reactions which often include, “I never thought about it that way.”  That’s privilege.  Not having to think about it.  Our institutions and social structures were made to benefit us; ‘white’ is the neutral against which everyone else is considered different and measured.  The implications for people of color are significant.  As Jim Edler said last night, we are like fish who have no concept of wet.  It is so a part of who we are that it’s almost impossible to perceive.  And because we don’t really see it, too often it takes a terrible act of hate to get our attention and we fail to recognize the countless daily acts of racism that people of color endure as part of “business as usual.” 

Councilman Schuder also suggested we need to break the problem down to its individual parts.  But it’s not just one, or two, or three individuals with complaints.  Because of that, we are not willing to see this as the issues of individuals.  That makes it too tempting to explain them away one by one rather than take a hard look at the institutional culture that allows problematic behavior to occur in the first place.  We see this as a collection of experiences that indicate there is an underlying problem.  By focusing on individuals the City continues with “business as usual,” which amounts to an attempt to distance yourselves from the larger problem and preserve the status quo.  As long as you take this approach you will continue to have problems because people of color will continue to face discrimination in City offices and public housing.  We are asking the City to stop trying to explain away individual cases and take this as an opportunity to exercise constructive leadership through a new approach.

I have heard you say on more than one occasion that you are only part-time in these positions.  As I said last night, you are the leaders of this community.  You chose your roles.  It is your responsibility to address these issues.  I’ll add that the hours you have already spent trying to defend the City from accusations and trying to explain away individual cases far exceed the time we are asking you to spend in a workshop.  Your time could be spent working in a different way.  I think your time would be better spent working from a proactive approach that helps mitigate these issues from arising in the first place rather than waiting to react to or defend individual manifestations of an underlying problem.   

Further, these are not problems that employees of the City or residents of public housing get to take a break from.  They are daily challenges.  So in my mind, you don’t get to take a break from without making significant headway first.
I want to be clear why we have not yet taken Mr. Finn up on his offer to meet.  First, neither I nor my group presume to speak for anyone.  Employees of the City, residents of public housing and the people they have asked to help represent their issues have been trying to speak with you.  We are joining a process already well underway; we don’t need to start a new conversation.  It’s not about me or my group.  We bring our presence in support of residents, employees and their representatives, and we ask you to work with them.  Not just listen and make promises and then continue with business as usual, but really address their concerns. 

  • Four years with a leaking roof and being told the resident can’t file a complaint by the Director of the Housing Authority because her issues are not “grievable.” 
  • Residents who do file complaints at the direction of the City and face retribution. 
  • A number of single women living in public housing subject to the violation of their privacy and security when the DHA uses his master key to enter their apartments unannounced. 
  • People living with infestations of rodents for years.
  • City employees who speak up about acts of discrimination and then face retribution.  Mr. Finn, I was no less than astonished when you said last night that Mr. Robinson is quite happy to stay on the back of the garbage truck.  That is “business as usual” and I find it unacceptable.

So the second reason we haven’t taken Mr. Finn up on his offer to meet with him is that he seems determined to create his own version of the situation supported by a careful selection of what he calls “facts.”  That language of “the facts are…” is the language of “business as usual.” 

That brings me to the third reason we haven’t taken Mr. Finn up on his offer to meet.  As I said last night, we aren’t speaking the same language.  We aren’t looking at this issue the same way.  Our motivation to make changes doesn’t originate from the same place.  So, trying to talk at this point amounts to spinning wheels, which is what happens in our exchanges during City Council meetings. 

We are asking you to take Step 1 by learning about white privilege through the attached articles.  Then take Step 2 by attending the Undoing Racism workshop we have suggested (the flyer is also attached).  We are asking each of you to participate in this.  Not a representative and not only the white members of the City leadership.  Everyone.  This is about you learning to see these issues with fewer blinders.  It’s not a free workshop, Ms. Foster, but if the City can spend money on “feel-good” community events then the City can surely spend money to pay for a training that might really give the community something to feel good about. 

If you are willing to take Step 1 and Step 2 then I am willing to offer my support by providing information and resources that can help you take Steps 3-15.  But you need to take the first steps so that when we do meet to talk, we really have something to talk about. 

Until then, members of The Cortlandt Peekskill Anti-Racism Collaborative and the Westchester Anti-Racist Alliance will continue to attend the City Council meetings.  Thanks to the report that Channel 12 put on the air before we even finished our two and a half hours together last night, others are taking interest. 

I am disheartened by Mayor Foster’s comment as we were leaving last night.  “See you in two weeks” is the language of “business as usual” and demonstrates an interest in continuing to spin our wheels through a contentious exchange rather than taking a new more productive approach.   I hope that after reading the attached material and attending the Undoing Racism workshop, we can embark on that new approach together. 

Thank you,

Tracy Breneman
914-402-5842

Posted in Progressive News Network