Call out exclusionary suburbs. Stand up for undocumented immigrants. Help boost Black small-business contractors. And always “speak truth to power.”
New Haven’s four Democratic candidates for mayor offered those responses when asked on the debate stage about what they have done and will do to combat systemic racial prejudices that benefit people who are white and harm those who are not.
Youth violence prevention activist Remidy Shareef posed that question Thursday night during a Democratic mayoral candidate forum hosted in the Lincoln Bassett School auditorium at 130 Bassett St.
Fresh off of a heated round of responses to another audience member’s question about what city government should do if a “bus of immigrants was suddenly sent” to New Haven, the four men seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor during the Sept. 12 party primary were pressed into further reflecting on some of the longest-standing and most contested issues in American public life — around race, identity, inequality, and the very structure of society — when Shareef took the floor.
“Is there anything that you’ve done in your life that shows that you stand against white supremacy, which is the root cause of all of our problems here in America?” Shareef asked. As part of that same question, Shareef asked the candidates what they would do to combat gun violence through addressing poverty.
Ex-McKinsey consultant Tom Goldenberg answered first.
“This is a huge step backwards,” Goldenberg said. He added that he has “recognized that U.S., American government policy — federal, state, local — has disproportionately created disparities in the African American community. That is a fact.”
And, if elected mayor, what would he do about it?
Goldenberg promised to revamp the city’s minority-owned small-business contracting program to boost job opportunities for local Black businesses. “As mayor, my first 90 days, I will revise minority contracting to benefit local Black contractors,” he said, without saying exactly how he would do that.
Former New Haven legal aid lawyer and current Hartford inspector general Liam Brennan began his response to Shareef’s question by saying that white people like him should approach such a question about white supremacy with humility and by first listening to others.
In terms of what he’s done over the course of his career to combat such structural racial inequality, he said, “Our move to clamp down on immigration [in recent decades] has been rooted in white supremacy. Because our immigrants are no longer white, the federal government has tried to restrict them more. And those policies are rooted in white supremacy.”
When he did legal research for and helped advocate for the passage of the Elm City ID card more than a decade ago, he said, “that was an effort to fight white supremacy here in this city.” Same goes for when he served for years on the board for the immigrant worker advocacy organization Junta for Progressive Action.
Moving on to his work investigating complaints of police misconduct in Hartford, he said, “We all know mass incarceration as it currently exists is a manifestation of white supremacy in our system. … The way that we look at our criminal justice system and the way we try to change it for the better is the civil rights issue of our time.”
“The War on Drugs is rooted in white supremacy,” Brennan added, winning a round of applause from the audience.
“We know that drugs are used across social backgrounds, across economic backgrounds, and across racial backgrounds pretty much equally. But who goes to jail for it? Black residents. Brown residents. We are unwilling to say that the War on Drugs should be over. I have done that. I have publicly spoken about that as inspector general, [and] the Hartford police [union] publicly called for my resignation for it. Standing up and taking these stances are important for combatting white supremacy.”
Two-term incumbent Mayor Justin Elicker thanked Shareef for “being real” and for posing a “a question we should struggle with as a community.”
Same goes for the city’s “DNA of an Entrepreneur” program, where “people are trained to be entrepreneurs to build equity.”
And, he said, his administration has “invested millions of dollars in homeownership program for low- to moderate-income people so that they can have a chance to own a home to build equity. We have invested millions and millions of dollars, more than in decades, to undo racism. And it will take brick by brick by brick to build this. We are making a lot of progress.”
As for how specifically to combat white supremacy, Elicker spoke about the need to “call out other people that don’t understand or value” the impact white supremacy still has.
“I remember having a battle with Greenwich because they weren’t doing enough on affordable housing. We need to actually be doing the work to push other communities to do more and to understand their success is about systemic racism.”
Shafiq Abdussabur, a former police sergeant and the sole Black candidate on stage Thursday, eschewed speaking directly about racial prejudice in his call for economic empowerment and opportunities for Black New Haveners.
“It’s not about racism on the skin and all this racism in the back room. It’s about how, when you have power of people’s lives, you choose to prioritize their life. That’s the injustice,” he said.
“Speak truth to power,” he told the audience. “Speak truth to power. That’s how we deal with [white supremacy]. We combat it by pulling people of communities of poverty that always get labeled ‘thug,’ ‘hood,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘poor,’ ‘Section 8,’ ‘those people.’ ”
If you walk up Dixwell Avenue from Lake Place to the Hamden town line today, he said, “where can you buy a cup of coffee?” Where you can buy “grilled chicken and salad and rice”? If Visels pharmacy is closed, where can you get “gauze and an emergency kit.”
Yes, coming redevelopments to Dixwell Plaza should significantly boost shopping options in the neighborhood. But, today, “where can you buy that on Dixwell Avenue?”
Click on the video below to watch Thursday’s Democratic mayoral forum in full.