ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A growing number of cities across the U.S. are creating committees and task force panels aimed at discussing racial tensions and confronting the past.
From Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Clemson, South Carolina, towns and municipalities recently have formed committees to deliberate the future of debated Confederate and Spanish colonial monuments or address systemic racism in police departments.
In some communities, religious leaders are forming their own racial healing committees to devote attention to racism. Phoenix Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Olmsted announced in July to formations of the “Racial Healing and Reconciliation Commission” in the Diocese of Phoenix to identify “where bias and prejudice cause injustice” and offer recommendations.
The mostly volunteer committees seek to have honest — and sometimes emotional — discussions about their cities’ past around race and vow to propose ideas to create more inclusive environments.
In Albuquerque, the Race, History & Healing Project is trying to determine what the city should do with a statue of a Spanish conquistador on the grounds of the Albuquerque Museum. Some Native Americans find the image offensive while Hispanic residents who trace their families' lineage to early Spanish settlers say the statue is a reminder of their own struggles.
But in June, a demonstration against the statue turned violent after a Hispanic defender shot a demonstrator. The protester survived but the city removed the statue and put it in storage.
This month, the Town Council of Fairfax, California, formed a Racial Equity and Social Justice Committee to focus on “dismantling and eradicating systemic and individual racism, bigotry, and discrimination” in the town of 7,500 people. Fairfax police will take part in planned Zoom meetings.
Meanwhile, city councilors in Bremerton, Washington, voted 5-2 in July to form a similar committee to address racial inequities in the city of 41,235 people. The committee's creation was praised by Black and Asian American advocates. But at least one city councilor, Pat Sullivan, criticized its formation as exclusionary.
“If I saw a gang, and most gangs are Hispanic or African American, if I saw a gang come and spray paint on the side of my neighbor’s house, which happened like five years ago, am I going to feel comfortable to come to a race equity advisory committee because I’m white and they’re a different color?” Sullivan said, according to the Kitsap Sun. The comment drew strong rebuke.
Hakim Bellamy, Albuquerque's Cultural Services deputy director and the city's former poet laureate, said dozens of people in New Mexico's largest city so far have participated in the Race, History & Healing Project. Diverse groups of residents have joined Zoom gatherings, one-on-one talks and took part in surveys.
Michelle Otero, another former Albuquerque poet laureate, has led some discussions as a facilitator. She described the gatherings as “very intense” as participants work to see the world through other people's eyes. And she said everyone may not agree on what to do with the disputed Spanish conquistador statue but they are talking to each other.
“This conversation is 400 years in the making,” Otero said. “We are still living with the consequences of the actions by our ancestors.”
Russell Contreras is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity Team. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras