‘While Black’: New York City Commission on Human Rights Launches Campaign to Combat Anti-Black Racism

Image: New York City Commission on Human Rights

Walking while black, waiting for an Uber while black, swimming while black, entering an apartment building while black, selling water while black, barbecuing while black; simply existing while black has become a headline-worthy situation as black people doing nothing more than going about their daily lives have become the target of racist and racially-motivated attacks that often end in the police being called on the innocent.

Police being called on black people is not a new phenomenon, but it is an especially dangerous one that can lead to the loss of a black person’s life, depending on the circumstances. For that reason, these situations cause alarm again and again whenever they occur.

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Add to that the everyday offenses that often go largely unchecked simply because they occur so often that they become easier and easier to brush off. People often refer to these as “micro-aggressions,” but Carmelyn P. Malalis, commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, told The Root she doesn’t like that term because it minimizes both the act and the impact.

Malalis said that is part of the impetus behind a new ad campaign the commission is launching Friday called “While Black,” which encourages people to file a report when they have been the victim of anti-black racism or discrimination—no matter how big or small.

“One of the reasons that in this campaign we focus on basic everyday activities—shopping, walking, working, renting, driving—is that it speaks to everyday forms of discrimination that people experience—probably with such regularity that they think ‘why should I report it? Who is going to care?’ The message is we care. We want you to report it. Someone is going to do something about it. CCHR is going to something about it. And we want to validate these experiences,” Malalis said.

The “While Black” campaign acknowledges and affirms the rights of all black New Yorkers to live their lives free of bias. It also provides information on how to report discrimination to the Commission.

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The campaign ads, which will run digitally and have 1,000 placements around the city, target anyone who identifies as black, including African American, Afro-Latinx, and African New Yorkers, as well as entities that have responsibilities, and potential liability, under the law, including housing providers, employers, employment agencies and business owners.

The campaign’s launch comes just one month after the release of the Commission’s groundbreaking legal guidance on race discrimination and hair in employment and public accommodations, which identifies discrimination based on natural hair and hairstyles most commonly associated with black people as racial discrimination. When the guidance was released in February, it received national and international public and media attention that shed light on the issue; other cities and jurisdictions developed their own guidance as a result.

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In conjunction with the campaign, the Commission’s public artist-in-residence, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, will unveil a series of citywide street art projects that address anti-black racism and a series of events focused on empowering communities in the face of gentrification and racial tensions.

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The NYC Human Rights Law has one of strongest protections against harassment and discrimination based on race and color in the nation.

During Fiscal Year 2018, the Commission received 584 race-based complaints and 191 based on color, as well as an overall 20 percent increase in complaints since 2016. Of the 584 race-based complaints received, 279 were employment complaints, 144 were housing complaints, and another 144 were public accommodations complaints.

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“We have a responsibility to make sure people feel like the city has their back,” Malalis said. “It’s also a message to those who would seek to harass people of color to let them know that it’s not tolerated. For the entities that have made light of the fact that this is happening to black New Yorkers, they should sit and take some pause to realize they will be on the hook for civil penalties if something like this happens.”

“There are meaningful remedies here,” said Brittny Saunders, Deputy Commissioner for Policy and Strategic Initiatives. “The commission is authorized to order up to $250,000 in civil penalties and uncapped damages. We can order policy and other changes.”

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“We want this to be a deterrent, but also speak to the visibility of the humanity of black people and their rights. Black people, trans people are rendered invisible and stripped of their humanity,” Malalis said. “Tatiana’s art will give visibility to black people in New York.”

Malalis said it’s important for black people to know they have “legal redress.”

“People didn’t know that they could file a claim of discrimination with CCHR,” she said.

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The Commission settled several high-profile cases last year after claims were filed, including:

  • A shopper at J.C.Penney filed a complaint of race discrimination alleging that he was targeted for an ID check at checkout because of his race. After investigation, the parties entered into a Commission conciliation agreement requiring J.C.Penney to pay a $6,500 civil penalty, pay $6,500 in compensation to the shopper, post Commission postings in all New York City locations and create an anti-bias and anti-profiling policy and train all staff in New York City.
  • A prospective tenant contacted LEB stating that she was denied an apartment by Property Resources Corporation because of her criminal history. The tenant stated that PRC relied on a criminal background report containing several mistakes and refused to consider her evidence that she had not been convicted of the charges on the report. LEB conducted an investigation into PRC’s tenant selection procedures and determined that PRC denied up to ten other individuals in a three-year period based on convictions appearing in background reports that were either minor, nondescript as to the underlying charges, or appeared to belong to different individuals. LEB filed a Commission-initiated complaint alleging that PRC had a policy of denying applicants based on criminal history where not related to business need, and that the criminal history policy had a discriminatory effect on black and Latinx applicants. PRC agreed to pay $55,000 in emotional distress damages and $25,000 in civil penalties, to notify all past applicants with a criminal history that they were eligible to reapply, to revise all tenant selection policies, to provide anti-discrimination training to all employees in New York City, and to submit to monitoring for a period of two years.
  • A couple (“Complainants”) filed a complaint against the owners of one two-unit building in Brooklyn (“Respondents”), alleging that Respondents denied them an apartment on the basis of race. The Commission’s Law Enforcement Bureau investigated and issued a Probable Cause determination, finding that a Respondent met the Complainants in person and then made disparaging statements and rejected the Complainants because one of the Complainants is black. Respondents, Complainants, and the Commission entered into a conciliation agreement requiring the Respondents to pay $15,000 to the Complainants in emotional distress damages, $2,500 to the City in Civil Penalties, attend training regarding the New York City Human Rights Law, and make postings of the Commission’s “Fair Housing, It’s the Law” notice in their building.
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The Commission wants people to know they are a venue for justice, and they encourage victims and those who witness harassment to report it by calling 718-722-3131, or dialing 311 and asking for Human Rights.

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As with their groundbreaking hair guidance, the Commission hopes other cities and jurisdictions will pick up on this initiative, as well, and make it a priority for their residents.

Amber Thomas, Program and Policy Specialist told The Root, “We want other jurisdictions to follow suit. This fight against racism in NYC is important. It’s not a one-off program, and we are going to fight to make sure New Yorkers feel protected. We want to make sure we continue to lead. We want to use this campaign as an example to help other cities and jurisdictions to speak out and fight against racism and make sure that black people and others feel comfortable in their spaces.”

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Living your everyday life while black is not a crime. Targeting you because of it is.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights wants you to speak out when it happens to you, no matter how big or small.

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Black Lives Matter.

You matter.

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About the author

Monique Judge

News Editor for The Root. I said what I said. Period.