How racist is Rochester? 

Do we know? Do we care?

If doctors tell you that you have a life-threatening problem, and they say it’s something you need to fix, do you ignore that warning?

A few weeks ago, Rochester got yet another damning report from ACT Rochester, with statistics that lay out, once again, the terrible state we’re in. As we noted when the report was released, some of the information wasn’t new. We’ve been told repeatedly that our poverty is among the highest in the nation – and that it’s having a terrible impact on people, on our children’s education, on our economy, on public safety.

What was new in this latest report, titled “Hard Facts: Race and Ethnicity in the Nine-County Greater Rochester Area,” was the information on race. Our poverty and poverty-related statistics are awful, and it’s a blot on this region that we haven’t done much to remedy that. But even worse is the racial disparity: the people most affected are African Americans and Latinos.

Poverty, infant mortality, home ownership, unemployment, student achievement: all are worse for people of color in the Rochester region than they are statewide and nationally. And as Ed Doherty, the report’s principal author, said when I talked to him about these latest data, the racial disparity isn’t accidental. It’s the result of deliberate actions, by individuals, businesses, and, most significantly, government. It’s the result of decade after decade of racism, much of it intentional.

ACT Rochester’s reports aren’t meant to be read and filed away. They’re meant to spur action. They spell out our problems, in the form of regular, updated data, so that we can see our problems clearly and then – if we’re the caring community we say we are – do something about them.

So far, though, the reaction to “Hard Facts” seems to have been silence.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. This community is really good at producing reports, forming committees, working diligently on outlines for action, and then going back to sleep. It’s not that we don’t agree that there are problems. It’s not that we don’t think the problems are serious. It’s not that we aren’t concerned. We are – for the moment. But we don’t have the will to do what we need to do.

And so, over the years, we’ve had numerous efforts to address racism – to bring it into the public consciousness, talk about it, condemn it. Those efforts are continuing. So are the problems that are disproportionately affecting people of color – in the city and throughout the Greater Rochester region.

We certainly know that racism is still thriving. From the slaughter at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston to the marches – hoodless, and blatantly proud and confident – in Oregon and Charlottesville, racism has come out of its dark corners and into the open.

It’s out in the open in Rochester, too, in online comments mocking African Americans, in public comments at forums discussing the admission of city children to schools in the suburbs. And it has come in the form of ugly death threats received by Rochester’s African-American mayor.

Lurking beneath all of that is the less visible but very real structural racism, in which individual racism and its effects are sanctioned and empowered by government, businesses, and institutions.

State “home rule” laws, zoning codes, employment practices, labor contracts, transportation policies, economic development practices, federal and state banking practices, voting laws, school curricula, criminal justice laws and policies: all of have helped keep people of color impoverished.

We could change all of that, if we wanted to. Most of the people who have to bring about that change, though, are not people of color.

These are all problems created by and perpetuated by those of us who are white.

As Ed Doherty told me when the “Hard Facts” report was released, this is a problem of leadership. Among the white leadership in this community, the silence about “Hard Facts” continues.

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