St. Petersburg City Council recently heard a presentation detailing the city’s history of structural racism, and subsequently approved recommendations on how to identify and address the problem moving forward.
Dr. Ruthmae Sears, associate professor of mathematics at the University of South Florida and director of the Coalition of Science Literacy, led the presentation on the extensive report titled “The examination of Historical and Modern-Day Impact of Structural Racism on the Lives of Black People in the City of St. Petersburg, Florida” at Thursday’s city council meeting. USF coordinated the study.
Nikki Capehart, director of Urban Affairs, called the six-month, $50,000 study one of the most painfully difficult assignments of her career.
“There’s pain on those pages,” she said.
Sears said the purpose of the intensive report was to provide a historical overview and a snapshot of current data trends that illustrates how structural racism affects Black life in the city. The study also provides recommendations to update or create new policies to address the structural racism that presently persists. Lastly, the report identifies additional aspects of structural racism that impact Black residents and communities that need further research and funding.
Sears led a diverse team of university and community researchers, racial justice advocates and student collaborators. The group also solicited feedback from St. Petersburg residents and community activists.
The recommendations are as follows:
- Continue support for the work started in the study
- Create an equity department within the purview of the Office of the Mayor
- Create and implement an effective accountability strategy buttressed by measurable outcomes that are tracked over time with disaggregated data
- Take action to advance the unanimous approval of the city council for the motion to create a permanent resident race equity board or commission, thereby helping to ensure the sustainability of the recommended transformation, inform and drive continual progress
- Explore reparative approaches to address disparities that have been made visible from the data and narratives of this and other reports
Gwendolyn Reese, President of the African American Heritage Association, was a member of the research team and shared her thoughts on their work. Reese said the report is difficult to read, accept and digest, even for those working on the study.
“We saw so much evidence of blatant racism throughout the history of this city,” said Reese.
The study began in 1868 when John Donaldson became the first Black settler in the city. Data in the report showed that in the following 100 years, both elected and appointed city officials played a large role in maintaining the socioeconomic gaps between St. Petersburg’s Black and white residents.
“Sometimes we want to deny and resist – this is not the time to deny or resist,” said Reese. “This is the time to look truthfully and honestly at the history, the roles different institutions played in this history of perpetuating structural racism, and then to come together and decide how do we move forward as a city.
“Exactly what kind of city does St. Petersburg want to be?”
Reese added that the city is on a path that has made her more hopeful for racial equity than she has ever been. She called working on the study emotionally, spiritually and physically draining but said it offers St. Pete the chance to set a high bar and become a model for other cities around the country.
“By not just commissioning the study, but actively accepting it and implementing many of the resolutions and recommendations,” said Reese.
Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin called the report’s findings documentation of a shared experience held by every African American that has called St. Pete home. She said the formality of the study is long overdue and a required demonstration by the city’s power structure to show its intent to address structural racism. She added it also offers the chance to rewrite the story of opportunity in the city.
“Most importantly, it recommends pathways to reconciliation and healing,” said Tomalin.
Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said she shared many of the same experiences noted in the study when she was growing up in Methodist Town, a historically Black community lost to gentrification and development.
“Everybody always says they want to make things right, and I’m going to say how long do we have to wait,” asked Wheeler-Bowman rhetorically. “We have been waiting.”
Wheeler-Bowman said structural racism persists to this day and relayed how the report stated that the Klu Klux Klan routinely held large gatherings and hosted city-wide entertainment events – including a circus.
“And then you want to wonder why Black people were offended when you want to have a mayor’s ball, for the first African American mayor, under the big top,” said Wheeler-Bowman. “Why shouldn’t we be offended when we couldn’t even attend the circus?”
City council passed the resolution by a vote of 5-3, with Chair Ed Montanari and councilmembers Gina Driscoll and Robert Blackmon voting no. Some council members took issue with the constitutionality, legality and fairness of language in the resolution regarding reparations.
A full list of researchers involved in the study can be found here.