Back to the Jul-Aug 2020 issue

Ending Systemic Racism: What’s the City’s Role?

Illustration of hands creating patterns and shapes.The killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020, moved the people of Minnesota, the country, and the world to demand justice and an end to systemic racism. How should cities respond? Minnesota Cities talked to National League of Cities CEO Clarence Anthony and League of Minnesota Cities President Brad Wiersum, mayor of Minnetonka, about the tragedy and the role of cities in eliminating systemic racism and advancing racial equity.

Brad Wiersum
Brad Wiersum, President, League of Minnesota Cities, and Mayor of Minnetonka
Clarence Anthony
Clarence Anthony
CEO, National League of Cities

Q. What did you think or feel when you saw what happened to George Floyd?

Clarence Anthony: My first thoughts were, “Oh no, not again,” and that our nation must take action on racism now. The events of the of the last several weeks serve as a horrific reminder of how important it is for cities to acknowledge and take meaningful action on racial injustice. The protests are not just about George Floyd. They are about Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and so many other tragic moments that have gained national attention, as well as the many others that have not, in the last five years.

Brad Wiersum: I was horrified and saddened. The inhumanity of that action and the video evidence are appalling and conclusive. This is an example of the brutal abuse of power of a white police officer toward an unarmed Black man. It was embarrassing to see that this happened in the Twin Cities metro area where I live. I felt ashamed.


Q.We’ve seen unjustified police killings and excessive use of force in the past, and they continue to happen disproportionately to people of color. What can cities do to prevent this from happening again?

CA: Municipal leaders have a unique opportunity to engage with their communities on racial equity issues to make smart policy decisions to reduce racial inequities in policing and restore police-community trust. Local leaders must step up and take the lead with their police departments and community members to address racial inequities. Local leaders have a greater capacity to create real, tangible changes in policing.

However, the responsibility does not lie solely on the backs of local leaders. It will take corporations, community organizations, and state and federal governments’ partnership to successfully eliminate systematic racism in all communities.

BW: City leaders should talk about the issue and own the problem; take responsibility. In our city, the police chief gave a report about policing practices to the City Council on June 8.

Three things stood out to me from his presentation: our hiring, training, and culture. Our city employs a community policing model. We have a community engagement officer who has a degree in social work, and our Police Department works to build relationships across racial, cultural, and religious lines.

The department has an accountability culture in which officers are expected to report actions that go against our policies and culture. The culture we foster in our Police Department includes values like high ethical standards, fairness, respect, honesty, empathy, and dedication. We recruit individuals we think will respect and adhere to our values. We hire individuals thoughtfully and use tools, like our probationary period and other policies and procedures, to make sure we hold all officers accountable for contributing to our culture.

I think that there are many best practices baked into how our city hires and trains police officers. These include investing time into getting to know candidates; building the right culture that clearly lays out expectations and accountabilities; providing support and resources for the stresses of the job; and being clear that city leadership supports our police, so long as our officers understand that they are accountable. Mistakes are opportunities to learn and improve. Dishonesty and brutality are never acceptable and are grounds for dismissal. Like every human endeavor, our Police Department is not perfect. We can improve and we need to continue to do so. We need to hire more officers of color and more women. In our region, competition is fierce for those candidates.

Q. Dismantling systemic racism and advancing racial equity are not just policing issues. What types of policies and structures do cities need to make sure they are providing all city services in an equitable way?

CA: The legacy of racist policies is playing out in front of our eyes. Advancing racial equity is a national effort, though the work will look different in individual cities. This is not a one-time fix, but a sustained investment in the work of achieving equity.

Every leader needs to commit to their individual communities’ needs. The solution includes a comprehensive approach that looks across practices, policies, and procedures. Centering equity is a commitment across agencies and systems. These include criminal justice, public safety, employment, and access to housing. Across the country, cities need a plan to address inequities and commit to ensuring policy and system changes are sustained. NLC is dedicated to working alongside our municipal leaders as they begin to right the wrongs of America’s long history of structural and institutional racism.

BW: There is no easy answer to this. The first step is to talk about race and equity in a purposeful and consistent way.

Having the conversations about uncomfortable topics like racism, police brutality, bias, and privilege requires people to be vulnerable. For many, those topics are controversial. Tackling controversial topics is part of the role of leaders, and we need to be willing to do it. Turning words into action is the next step, and it too is uncomfortable. Building a strong culture and being very clear on expectations of all employees is important.

We also need to listen to people of color and get their thoughts on where bias and prejudice exist in city policies and practices.

We must examine city practices purposefully and in detail to ascertain where bias exists, and then change the policies that need to be changed. In addition, we must demonstrate a consistent commitment to ensuring that everything the city does is going to be examined in terms of how the action contributes to the pursuit of equity and fairness.Quote from the article by Clarence Anthony

Q. How important are a city’s policies and structures in keeping or gaining the trust of all its residents, and particularly, of its communities of color?

CA: Racial tension is not born solely from crisis-level events.

These events surface long-standing issues that cultivated racial tension. Our country’s historical interaction with communities of color through government policy and practice created a fractured and tense relationship. It is critical to understand this historical context when considering how and why communities of color respond to these incidents. Racial equity requires understanding of justice and fairness. The first step is to hold ourselves accountable for past decisions and recognize that local, state, and federal leaders have historically authorized

actions that disproportionately negatively impacted Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Local leaders have the responsibility for ensuring the health and safety of their residents in the development of new, more equitable policies and practices.

BW: The city’s policies and structures are essential to gaining the trust of residents. Building a culture of respect for everyone is important. When people feel that they are respected and heard, trust is built. City policies need to be perceived as being fair, responsive, and responsible. Actions of city employees need to be consistent with policies, which need to be fairly and consistently applied to everyone. All residents need to feel safe and to feel that safety is available to everyone equally.

Q. How should city leaders communicate with city employees and residents about racial tensions and racial equity?

Quote from the article by Brad WiersumCA: It is critical to approach racial tensions head on. In NLC’s conversations with several municipal leaders who experienced these situations firsthand, five common values stand out: empathy, transparency, authenticity, collaboration, and consistency. City leaders are encouraged to embed these values in their response to crisis. Leadership sets the tone, but these values should be carried by everyone in the city who has any role in the response.

BW: City leaders should communicate in a clear, honest, and consistent way. The message needs to be that commitment to equity and justice is not a sometime thing. It is fundamental to how a city serves its residents. To help ensure that the message is clearly communicated, cities should welcome feedback on how the city is performing on race and equity issues.

Q. What would you say to city leaders whose communities aren’t as racially diverse and who don’t believe race equity needs to be addressed in their community?

CA: Understanding the history of why your communities are not racially diverse is just as important. Committing to advancing racial equity in your community is not just the right thing to do; research shows that equity is a superior growth model.

Racial equity is good governance. Cities are more prosperous, safer, and healthier, and government is more accountable.

BW: Every human being is biased. Understanding that we all are biased is the first step in dealing with the difficulties that bias creates. No community is immune from issues of race. Indigenous, Latinx, Black, and immigrant populations are dispersed throughout Minnesota. Individuals from those groups also travel throughout our state. Everyone in the state of Minnesota can benefit from awareness and consciousness of the impact of racial bias on residents of and visitors to our cities.

Q. This may be an overwhelming situation for some cities. What steps would you advise them to start with as they seek community healing after this devastating time of unrest?

CA: As local leaders, you play a unique role in setting the tone of local governments and institutions. Mayors and councilmembers should set an example and commit themselves to

prioritizing racial equity by participating in equity leadership trainings or starting a community conversation to engage unique voices throughout the community. Your residents need to hear your commitment to racial equity. A public declaration is a bold message that builds connection between communities of color and governing bodies.

After declaring your commitment to racial equity, your community needs to dedicate new or align existing resources to create a system capable of change. Building a team and developing staff skills to address the impacts of racism throughout local government are necessary steps toward achieving real progress.

BW: Call the League of Minnesota Cities. The League has personnel, resources, and ideas on how cities can navigate these challenging and turbulent waters. Another important avenue is to collaborate and communicate with neighboring cities. Rely on the other city organizations to which your city belongs. Use the resources available from the National League of Cities. City leaders can and should make a commitment to personally read and become more knowledgeable about race and bias. It is an issue for everyone.

Q. Any final words?

CA: More than five years ago, NLC created its Race, Equity And Leadership department (REAL) to provide resources, technical assistance, toolkits, and information to local leaders on how to create more equitable and safe cities for ALL Americans. REAL has been deeply enveloped in this space, and the COVID-19 pandemic and international uprisings have caused us to take a critical look at the work we have achieved and where we have fallen short.

BW: Race and bias are hard issues. They clearly take us out of our comfort zones. To effectively take action, leaders need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is a journey.

By keeping an eye on the destination, we become closer to achieving “Liberty and justice for ALL” than when we first started this journey.