Advancing racial equity will take not only transformation of tangible programs, systems, and structures but will also require symbolic rejection of racism and bias—from Robert E. Lee’s name on elementary schools to geographic landmarks named with racial slurs. In an interview with the Washington Post, Christian Vida, a curator at the Valentine museum in Richmond, Virginia, said, “Public art contributes to private thought, and private thought influences public policy.” This, Vida suggests, allows us to connect the dots to persistent inequities.

Nowhere is the work of advancing racial equity more urgent or more complex than in our cities, where local officials face the task of leading their residents through an ongoing pandemic with far-reaching social and economic ramifications. We know what work is necessary for cities to advance racial equity: investing in social services, prioritizing public health, reimagining the role of police, fixing public school funding structures, and implementing job guarantees, among other emerging, evidence-based efforts.

With all these urgent matters on the docket, it’s reasonable to ask whether it makes sense for city leaders to prioritize confronting and dismantling racist symbols. But city leaders have specific obligations to their community members. So many of our citizens still live under threat of violence, abuse, and neglect, often at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve them.

When city leaders remove symbols of racism and bigotry from public life and public spaces, it sends a message that they will no longer tolerate (much less valorize) biased, racist practices. Out of that message comes relief, a collective exhale, which creates space for people inside and outside city hall to begin making desperately needed, tangible progress in our institutions.

Read the full article about racist symbols in cities by Kimberlyn Leary and Gaylen Moore at Urban Institute.