University of South Florida


City of St. Petersburg approves USF and community researchers’ recommendations on how to address systemic racism

Illustration of the Skyway Bridge with Black fists for the supports

St. Petersburg City Council members are moving forward with a plan created by an interdisciplinary team of researchers coordinated by the University of South Florida on how to identify and address structural racism in the community.

Portrait of Dr Ruthmae Sears

Ruthmae Sears, associate professor of mathematics

Ruthmae Sears, associate professor in mathematics education and director of the Coalition of Science Literacy, and her fellow researchers presented the report, “The Examination of Historical and Modern-Day Impact of Structural Racism on the Lives of Black People in the City of St. Petersburg, Florida” to the city council. A resolution to act upon the recommendations of the report passed. Sears led a diverse team that included university and community researchers, racial justice advocates and student collaborators. These individuals documented relevant historical evidence, analyzed current  data trends, collected narratives from residents and activists, and wrote the final report.

"We are truly appreciative for the residents who willingly shared their personal experiences and provided insights into the best path forward for the city," Sears said. "The experiences and wisdom of the community are essential to advancing the recommendations of this study, building bridges, promoting racial equity, and improving the overall quality of life for residents in St. Petersburg.” 

Based on the evidence discovered during the intensive study, the five immediate action steps recommended were:

  1. Create an equity department within the Office of the Mayor. The director will serve as a liaison between the community and the budget committee, using an annual equity assessment and other data to negotiate funds for city projects and promptly bring issues to light.
  2. Create and implement an effective accountability strategy that includes a commitment to a race equity review of existing city policies and practices and of all future proposed policies and practices. The strategy will be supported by measurable outcomes that are tracked over time and used to influence incremental improvements to the strategy until equitable outcomes are achieved.
  3. Create a permanent resident race equity commission aligned with the motion approved in April 2018, which supported an African American Quality of Life Sunshine Committee. This will advance the unanimously approved motion. The performance monitoring will ensure progress towards equity is made and it is recommended that this becomes a permanent way of conducting business in the city.  
  4. Examine and initiate action steps to reparations to address disparities that have been made visible by this report. In conversations with those most impacted by racism in the community, topics focused on wanting more tangible efforts of restitution such as affordable housing, reforms in the criminal-legal system, free health services or tertiary education.
  5. Continue support for the work started in the study.

Researchers hope that this is where repair, healing and making amends can begin in St. Petersburg and that their results can be used as a national model for eliminating systemic racism.

“My sincere thanks to Dr. Ruthmae Sears and the entire team at USF for leading the way on this critically important endeavor,” Mayor Kriseman said. “While this work was initiated by the city of St. Petersburg, it is now a part of a long-overdue community conversation, and it will be up to not just city officials, but community leaders and citizens to have that conversation going forward.”

The report was undertaken and authored over a six-month period to research, examine and document the history of structural racism in the city of St. Petersburg before providing the five recommendations. The team started sharing the findings and obtaining additional feedback from the community in October.

Funding and support are needed to advance a second phase as well as dig deeper in areas identified by the community, such as factors that contribute to social determinants of health and steps to achieving reparation.

As evidence, the research team provided St. Petersburg leaders a historical overview of how policies, practices and infrastructures have evolved since 1868 when John Donaldson became the first Black individual to settle in the city. Data pertaining to the criminal-legal system, economic development, education, and the health care system illustrated how opportunities for growth in the Black community have been limited.

The data showed that for 100 years following Donaldson’s arrival, city officials – both elected and appointed – played a role in perpetuating the Black-white economic gaps. From exerting unmitigated influence over public policy decisions and the allocation of public investments, to empowering the Jim Crow racial economic hierarchy, officials ensured that economic opportunity remained an exclusively white domain. These public policies are only partly abated in the present day.

Public records show two dozen local officials supported violations of federal and local laws that upheld segregation. They openly colluded with white property owners to limit Black ownership and charted policies to prevent wealth building through home values and opportunities.

City policy and practice blocked Black economic growth through Black labor control policies, Black entrepreneurship limitations and employment and contracting discrimination. City leaders also supported a city-run convict labor work program and pipeline that was openly targeting Blacks, costing their families hundreds of millions of dollars in labor.

Black-only schools received a fraction of the tens of millions of dollars poured into white-only schools. Then, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation of public schools, segregation continued until the Pinellas County School District was sued in 1964 and forced to desegregate countywide (Leon W. Bradley, Jr., et al. v. Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County). This lawsuit spanned 50 years, citing broken promises to balance the scales for Black students.

The data shows that not only is there a wage gap between non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic Blacks or African Americans, but more education does not close the gap.

Unequal funding and segregation carried over into health care facilities as city leaders invested more readily in facilities and services for white versus Black citizens.

Fast forward to the present, the data illustrates that health outcomes for ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are tied to race.  Life expectancy by zip code shows double-digit disparities in historic Black zip codes. That shows decades of ongoing patterns of racial disparities plague the black community

Co-principal investigators from USF include Johannes Reichgelt, professor of information systems and decision sciences and director of the Institute for Data Analytics and Visualization; James McHale, professor of psychology and director of the Family Study Center on the St. Peterburg campus; Fenda Akiwumi, geosciences professor and director of the Institute on Black Life; and Dana Thompson-Dorsey, endowed chair of Education Innovation and director of the David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching. The student collaborators on the project were Jalessa Blackshear and Casey Lepak. Michelle Bradham-Cousar served as the project manager. The community researchers who served as co-principal investigators of the study were Gypsy Gallardo, Power Broker Media Group and Urban Market Analytics; Gwendolyn Reese, African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg and Black Health Equity Alliance; and Tim Dutton, Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. The community advocate on the team was Jabaar Edmond, Child Parks Neighborhood Association.

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