NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the formation of a new racial justice commission that will aim to help dismantle structural racism in New York City. 

The commission, made up of 11 prominent nonprofit leaders, activists, policy experts and academics, will examine city laws and have the power to recommend revisions to the City Charter, which functions like a constitution, and put those revisions on a citywide ballot for residents to vote on. 

What You Need To Know

  • De Blasio is forming a commission to examine city laws and recommend changes to address systemic and institutionalized racism

  • The commission is made up of prominent nonprofit leaders and activists, as well as current members of the de Blasio administration

  • The commission will have the power to create ballot measures for New Yorkers to vote for or against

De Blasio is billing the commission as an unprecedented step by any city or state in the country to address the codification of racism in law and to implement changes to rectify that legacy, and also as a capstone to his efforts to level the playing field for poor and marginalized New Yorkers.

“We need to do something transformational at this point in our history, something unprecedented,” he said at a Tuesday morning press conference. “This is gonna surpass everything else we’ve done previously in terms of the sweep and the impact it can have for the future of this city and this nation.” 

De Blasio, now in his final year in office after being elected to two terms as mayor, had announced the formation of a similar commission last June, called the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission, to commemorate Juneteenth. At the time, his office said that the commission would “promote social learning, collective introspection, and policy action,” and create a record of racial discrimination. That commission never materialized. 

The new commission is expected to release a report on its proposed revision to city laws within the next few months. Those revisions could appear as ballot measures next year, posing a challenge to the city’s next mayor, to be elected in November, if the new mayor is opposed to the ideas. 

Among the members of the commission are several people who have partnered with the de Blasio administration on other policy efforts, as well as current members of his administration. 

Jennifer Jones Austin, the head of a major anti-poverty nonprofit, will serve as the commission’s chair. De Blasio appointed Austin as chair of the city’s Board of Correction last March. 

Henry Garrido, leader of DC 37, the city’s largest public employee union, is the commission’s vice chair. 

Other members include K Bain, a prominent anti-gun violence activist; Darrick Hamilton, a professor at the New School; and Jo-Ann Yoo, the executive director of the Asian American Federation. 

“Never has an opportunity of this magnitude been before me - frankly, before all of us,” Austin said at the press conference. “The only way to uproot racism in our city’s government structures is by attacking it at the core through charter revision.”

De Blasio said there was no explicit policy brief for the commission to consider, though it may take up issues that are close to commission members. Hamilton is a vocal supporter of “baby bonds,” a publicly-funded investment account for every newborn child meant to close the wealth gap. 

Jones told the New York Times it would also consider reparations for victims of systemic racism. 

“We should have conversations about reparations and what that could look like,” Jones said. 

De Blasio said that the commission is based on those formed in other countries to address histories of racism, genocide and trauma, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created after the end of the apartheid era. 

Previous special panels and commissions created under de Blasio’s administration have seen mixed results.

One commission created in 2019 recommended the city adopt ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to pick up to five candidates to list on their ballot, and which some proponents pitched as a way to boost minority and women candidates. That ballot style is now in use in the city, and will be used in mayoral primaries in June. 

A special panel on school desegregation recommended in 2019 that the city eliminate all gifted and talented programs. De Blasio had announced in January that the city would eliminate the program by 2022, when he leaves office.