Two years ago this month, a horrific event unfolded in Newtown, Conn., that sent Americans into an apoplexy about guns in American society: 20 innocent elementary schoolchildren and six adult staff members were viciously gunned down by a deranged teenage killer. 

In a race to be the first in the nation in responding to this tragedy, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo hastily cobbled together the NY SAFE Act, a package of gun laws that the state Legislature passed into law in early January 2013.

While I disagreed with Gov. Cuomo’s SAFE Act, I respected that he took action in response to a public outcry over Newtown (and a lesser known ambush killing of police officers in Webster, N.Y.). Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the governor’s approach to tackling the problems of race and racism in America in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. For a man who prides himself on dealing with issues head-on, Cuomo has not exhibited his customary initiative, even though the situation cries out for him to demonstrate leadership.

Asked about his record on race, Cuomo and his defenders will say that as attorney general he led the fight to achieve Rockefeller drug law reform and that as governor he has closed state prisons and has lifted M/WBE state contract utilization from 10 to 20 percent in his first term (in October he announced a new goal of 30 percent). “Discrimination and racism is alive and well, and it is illegal. Government has an affirmative obligation to right these wrongs, and we need to have the same strength in enforcing these laws as we do with criminal and drug laws,” Cuomo said at the state’s M/WBE forum this fall.

These are powerful, admirable words, and yet following the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case, Cuomo simply urged New Yorkers “to respect the legal process and the rule of law.” In a later radio interview, Cuomo went only slightly further, promising that “we at the state level are ready to act to better the [criminal justice] system.” 

I wish Cuomo had swung for the fences and reiterated his righteous remarks from the M/WBE forum. 

Certainly government has a responsibility to right the wrongs of generations of discrimination and racism. The Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein recently identified the conditions that created Ferguson and countless other black communities across America. According to Rothstein, they are the result of century-old public policies that fostered racial discrimination and segregation. Suburban zoning rules, mortgage programs, inadequate government services and the weak enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, as well as labor market and employment policies, contributed to the conditions that racially and economically isolated black communities. Out of that isolation emerged joblessness, crime, social disorder and the prison-industrial complex. 

Our timidity in addressing race and racism makes certain that “remedies are unlikely if we fail to recognize these policies and how their effects have endured,” states Rothstein.

Come January, Cuomo should empanel a state commission empowered to overhaul every aspect of state government—its regulations, statutes and laws—that fosters conditions resulting in disparate racial harm. “Now is the time to move beyond tinkering with the myriad criminal-record-based discrimination laws that serve as a surrogate for race-based discrimination, and instead demand a wholesale review and dismantling of these policies,” says JustLeadershipUSA Founder Glenn Martin.

A serious and immediate overhaul of state statutes and regulations barring ex-offenders from various types of employment, housing and educational assistance would be a tangible start to addressing these inequities, and would enhance safety, create new taxpayers and help restore the public’s confidence in government.

 These are necessary actions that must transcend the criminal justice issue by addressing the corrosive effects of systemic racism and discrimination upon communities of color. Just as he did in the aftermath of Newtown, Gov. Cuomo must now respond forthrightly to Garner’s and Brown’s deaths by delivering enduring results for those who are seeking racial justice and demand “no more business as usual.”

 

Michael Benjamin (@SquarePegDem) is a former state assemblyman from the Bronx.