HOLYOKE — Mayoral candidate Rebecca Lisi showed Tuesday why she’s ready to lead now as she analyzed the issue of racism and offered ways to improve relations.
“Where white bodies are assumed to have good intentions and are afforded the benefit of the doubt when mistakes are made, blame, burdens and bias are cast upon the Black and brown bodies among us,” said Lisi, a city councilor at large.
Lisi’s remarks followed comments from 16 people who addressed the Council during the board’s public speak-out to criticize a decision by Acting Mayor Terence Murphy.
Murphy sparked community upset by rescinding an executive order that declared racism and police violence to be a public health emergency. Former Mayor Alex B. Morse issued the executive order a year ago in response to the nationwide protests at the murder of George Floyd, a black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota May 20.
A jury has convicted Derek Chauvin, 45, a former Minneapolis police officer, of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
The usual limit of speakers during the Holyoke City Council public speak-out is seven, the 16 in this meeting highlighting the concern over Murphy’s rescinding of the executive order.
Lisi said Murphy’s action rolls back an advance the community achieved last year.
“Let me start by saying that over the past few years that Acting Mayor Murphy has been on the Council, I have had the chance to work closely with him and get to know him as a person. Terry Murphy is a nice guy and a decent man. I have seen him work to make things in the city more inclusive.
“But being a good guy does nothing to address the institutional nature of racism. And all the previous speakers were here to lend their voices to the issue of racism.”
Such a discussion is difficult, said Lisi, a specialist in the field. A doctoral candidate, Lisi has an advanced degree in political science with a concentration in race and ethnicity in politics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
“And I still find it difficult to have these conversations in community. I respect everyone for coming forward with their comments tonight,” Lisi said.
Now, Murphy’s rescinding of the executive order has prompted the community to seek accountability, she said.
“At best, Mayor Murphy’s actions speak to the white privilege that prevents him from realizing the tone-deafness of rescinding this executive order on the year anniversary of George Floyd’s wrongful murder.
“At worst, his actions betray the longstanding problems that white Americans must confront related to their colorblind understanding of racial equality.”
For too long, “racial equality” has meant looking through a colorblind lens that claims respect and dignity are sufficient to overcome racism. This approach has been the dominant way of looking at race and racism since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she said.
“But a new generation of color consciousness has arrived. A generation that is willing to declare, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Lisi said.
“This generation recognizes the failure of color blindness to address the systemic nature of racism. That our social, economic and political institutions privilege white bodies above all others.
“We have seen this plainly over the course of the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the systemic racism that led to uneven health outcomes and disproportionately high rates of infection, hospitalization and death among racial and ethnic minorities.
“These problems are systems-based and cannot be solved by ‘being nicer’ to one another.”
No amount of kindness can change the fact that because of the lower educational attainment achieved by communities of color, they were overrepresented among the essential workers who faced the greatest risks of exposure to the virus over the past year, she said.
No amount of respect can undo the legacy of slavery. Or the redline housing policies that robbed families of color of opportunities to turn their labor into wealth, she said.
Instead, today, Black and brown bodies more often live in dense and substandard housing conditions that made it easier for the coronavirus to proliferate through their communities, she said.
“There is no amount of respect that that can undo the generational effects of stress and trauma that are responsible for the higher incidence of comorbidities (the simultaneous presence of two or more diseases or medical conditions in a patient) carried by Black and brown bodies that contributed to the higher mortality rates among those infected by the virus.
“This is all to say that anti-Black bias can only be confronted with policy interventions—which is why the rescission of the executive order to declare racism and police violence a public health emergency is so incredibly deleterious for our community.”
Kindness, respect and dignity are all important precursors for having a productive community dialogue around race, she said.
Equally important, she said, is the ability to have these conversations with honesty and an accurate understanding of racism and how it works in our society.
“Once we understand the institutional nature of racism, it becomes clear why previous notions of colorblindness have failed to advance a sustainable form of equality in our country.
“In order to move forward, we need concrete and tractable policy interventions.”
Lisi cited and praised those who addressed the City Council on the issue during the public speak-out.
Now, she said, the community needs Murphy to take two actions: withdraw his rescission of the executive order to declare racism and police violence a public health emergency, and reconvene a commission on policing that Morse established.
The City Council also has a responsibility to adopt and fund Lisi’s order to do an independent assessment of the Holyoke Police Department’s structure, policies and practices, she said. That order is being considered by the Council Public Safety Committee.
Lisi, 42, is in her 14th year as a city councilor at large. That means that voters citywide in seven straight elections have entrusted her with two-year terms.
The four pillars of Lisi’s campaign for mayor are education, economic development, being welcoming to newcomers and civic engagement.
The City Council voted April 12 to appoint Murphy, the Ward 2 representative on the Council, acting mayor until a new mayor is chosen in the city election Nov. 2. The step became necessary when Morse left March 26 to become town manager of Provincetown, Massachusetts.
A transcript of Lisi’s full comments is below: