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Fort Worth City Council Hears Plan To Curb Racial Disparities

Christopher Connelly

For the last year and a half, Fort Worth’s Task Force on Race and Culture has been studying racial disparities in the city, and working on a plan to make the city more inclusive and equitable. On Tuesday, the task force presented 22 recommendationsto the city council aimed at closing racial gaps in all aspects of city life from housing and health to education, transportation and economic development.

The 23-member task force held dozens of meetings to hear from residents and gathered troves of data, which revealed stark statistics. In Fort Worth, black and Latino residents are more likely to be arrested than whites, the task force found. They are, on average, disproportionately hit by cars while walking or biking, suffer more frequently from preventable diseases, have higher rates of unemployment and are paid less well than whites.

Black and Latino communities are also under-represented on city council, and on city boards and commissions.

Rosa Navejar, a co-chair of the task force, told the council that residents repeatedly expressed frustrations that the city was doing little to improve racial equity, and that city leaders regularly failed to acknowledge the problems. She said many thought the city’s disparities were caused by systemic and structural racism than personal animosity.

“One of the things that we know going forward is that we need to continue and expand and deepen our conversations with everyone in the city about how we embrace the diversity of our city,” Navejar said.

The city council organized the task force after the arrest of Jackie Craig, a black Fort Worth woman who called the police to ask for help and was arrested, along with her teenage daughters, by a white police officer. Video of the rough arrest went viral, sparking protests and concern among city leaders about racial tensions in Fort Worth.

The recommendations

The task force’s recommendations cover broad territory, and include data-driven benchmarks for success. Navejar estimated the cost of implementing all 22 would be about $3.2 million, which amounts to less than one percent of the city’s annual budget, she noted to the city council.

On criminal justice, the recommendations include instituting a citizen review board or other formal civilian oversight body for the police force, and building a more diverse police department. A quarter of Fort Worth officers above the rank of corporal/detective are not white, according to the task force report, while the city they police is 60 percent non-white.  

In education, the task force found students of color are more likely to attend underperforming schools and more likely to face disciplinary suspensions than their white peers, and that racial achievement gaps are readily apparent by third grade. So the task force recommendations include investing in quality early childhood and developing better infrastructure to ensure more students leave high school ready for college or work.

In terms of housing, the city’s lack of quality affordable housing and disparate rates of homeownership between whites and non-whites are long-standing problems in Fort Worth, task force co-chair Bob Ray Sanders told the council.

“We know that minorities pay a lot more of their income than the average Anglo,” Sanders, a former Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist and KERA news reporter, said. “Substandard and over-crowded housing? More Hispanics are in those. What can we do to change those things?”

The answers from the task force: incentivize developers to build affordable housing, update the city’s homebuyer assistance program, and do a better job of connecting residents with existing housing resources.

What happens next?

Rosa Navejar told the city council it’s up to them to start making recommended changes if they’re committed to a more equal Fort Worth.

“We do not want the last 18 months’ worth of work to just be shelved. We want next steps. We want to see this implemented.”

Councilmembers signaled support for the task force recommendations.

“I think Fort Worth is a city of compassion and inclusivity and respect and equity for all, and I think we’ve begun to demonstrate that,” said Mayor Betsy Price, who called the recommendations a “first step” to address disparities that are deeply rooted.

“It’s very, very sad that it takes this kind of report to wake up people in this city,” said Councilwoman Gyna Bivens. “This report for me gives us an opportunity to look at Fort Worth and see how brave we can be.”

“This conversation shouldn’t have started through a bad incident. It should’ve been something we’ve been doing all along,” said Councilman Jungus Jordan. “We’ve got a long road ahead.”

Not everyone has been supportive of the task force's work. As the task force was discussing its draft recommendations with community groups in October, the immigrant-rights group United Fort Worth launched a petition drive and issued a detailed statement laying out a range of concerns, accusing the task force of "systematic exclusion" of immigrant-rights organizations, and arguing that the process lacked adequate accountability measures. The group offered its own list of 17 recommendations.

Task force members have dismissed the criticisms.

Next week, the Fort Worth city council will vote on a resolution to adopt the task force's recommendations. But that only begins the complicated process of figuring out how, exactly, to implement the changes.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.