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USF researchers to present final structural racism report to St. Petersburg leaders on Thursday

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Posted at 7:49 AM, Dec 09, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — “Exactly what kind of city does St. Petersburg want to be,” asked Gwendolyn Reese, a St. Petersburg resident.

That’s the question residents are now asking city leaders.

“We saw so many, so much evidence of blatant racism throughout this city,” said Reese.

This comes after months of research on structural racism in the community.

“Our goal is really to promote healing and creating an inclusive environment in the City of St. Petersburg,” said Dr. Ruthmae Sears, Project Leader and Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of South Florida.

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“This is the time to look truthfully and honestly at the history, the roles different institutions played in this history in perpetuating structural racism,” said Reese.

A team from the University of South Florida partnered with the city to examine the historical and modern-day impact of systemic racism on the lives of Black people in St. Pete.

They’ll be presenting their final report to the city council on Thursday.

They found issues in several areas.

“Discrimination was well documented in the policies particularly relative to law and order,” said Sears.

Project leaders say data showed disproportionate arrests.

“As we went through the arrest records, Blacks are more likely to be arrested and you know the percentage of Black arrests is higher than the percentage of Blacks who actually live in the community,” said Sears.

“Really thinking about how do we affect our biases relative to who is the criminal. There have been many studies done nationally about our own biases. We all have them. Stereotypes, we have them. But how does it affect our decision making and our actions to impact others,” she added.

Their research even showed problems with the city council in the past.

“The persons who were on the council some of them were pro-segregationist and also persons aligned with the KKK so they supported white supremacy or suppressive viewpoints in their decision making,” said Sears.

“There were real concerns that what was happening behind the doors of city council was not to the advancement of the Black community,” she added.

Project leaders also found that discriminatory policies and practices were common over the years in several areas of the city and impacted the economic, educational, and health outcomes for Black residents.

Sears said healthcare disparities start at birth for Black people.

“In Pinellas, where the infant mortality rate is 6.8, is higher than that of the state, the rate at which Black infants die is 12.9 is more than double that of the white infants in that community.”

The USF team of researchers found disparities in pay, housing opportunities, and even infrastructure.

“These findings are highlighting there was not a lack of knowledge that there were issues, it was a lack of effort to correct the issues,” said Sears.

This study includes an action plan for changes in narrative, police, and institutional practices to end structural racism in the city.

“Every minute, every second, someone is hurting. So we have to say let’s start now. Acknowledging it takes time, we have to figure out when do we start to ensure that time does not pass us by,” said Sears.

“After listening to members of the community they made it very clear. They do not want another study. They want actionable items and that’s important," she added.

Some of the recommendations researchers suggest to move forward include:

  • Creating an equity department within the purview of the Mayor’s Office
  • Creating an effective accountability strategy with measurable outcomes that are tracked over time with data
  • Create a permanent resident race equity board or commission to ensure sustainability 
  • Explore reparative approaches to address disparities that have been visible from data and other reports 

“Rather than letting history just simply repeat itself as a cycle, our goal is to say hey we’ve learned, we’ve seen these trends, let’s move forward,” said Sears.

“We still have work to do as the community to collectively say hey we’re all in this together. We’re all committed to making this place a better place for all of us,” she added.