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Structural racism in St. Petersburg under scrutiny in new study

The study will be complete in September, but preliminary findings were presented to City Council last week.
People listen while several organizers speak outside St. Petersburg City Hall ahead of a march in solidarity against racism and police brutality in April. A new study is examining the role of structural racism in the city.
People listen while several organizers speak outside St. Petersburg City Hall ahead of a march in solidarity against racism and police brutality in April. A new study is examining the role of structural racism in the city. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 15

ST. PETERSBURG — The takeaways from a study presented at Thursday’s St. Petersburg City Council meeting weren’t particularly surprising: Structural racism exists in the city. And it has for a long time.

Inequality and segregation have been longstanding issues in St. Petersburg, where only decades ago redlining forced African Americans to live in certain areas and where Central Avenue served to bifurcate the city. Those historic wrongs, and others, have a strong and persistent legacy today, according to the study.

Black residents in the city earn less than white residents, even at similar education attainment levels. Black residents are more likely to live in poverty. And those who live in the poorer and Blacker census tracts, like along 22nd Avenue S, have a life expectancy more than eight years shorter than the rest of Pinellas County.

“The stress alone that comes with when you’re not able to provide a good enough income for your family,” said Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, the city’s director of urban affairs. “That impacts stress, that impacts health.”

The study, which was commissioned by city officials for $50,000 and is being conducted by USF, attempts to bring together several disparate initiatives to study and address systemic racism into one comprehensive document, using historical accounts and contemporary data. It began in March; Thursday’s presentation was an update on its work.

Those conducting the study include University of South Florida math professor Ruthmae Sears, who is the lead investigator, along with USF information systems professor Johannes Reichgelt, USF psychology professor James McHale, USF education professor Dana Thompson Dorsey, USF Institute on Black Life professor Fenda Akiwumi, historian Gwendolyn Reese, and activists Tim Dutton and Gypsy Gallardo. The group will present a final report, plus recommendations on ways to address the structural racism it quantifies, in September.

Before the presentation, Council member Brandi Gabbard contextualized the study as growing from a 2018 Youth and Family Services committee meeting following that year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. Community activist Jabaar Edmond and others criticized the police tactics that year and called for an African American quality of life study.

The following spring, City Council voted to conduct a study and also create a standing African American quality of life committee.

There was disagreement on the dais, though, about the role, necessity and timing of a committee. Gabbard sought a commitment from Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration to form a committee after the study is done, as City Council had requested. Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said the administration will let the study and recommendations guide the response, which may include the formation of a committee. But it’s too early to say who would be on a committee or what its purpose would be.

“I just think if we prematurely get overly invested in one tactic, without it being validated by the data ...” said Tomalin, who is Black. “We very likely stand a chance to end up exactly where we always have been.”

Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, the Council’s lone African Americans, both said they wanted to wait for the findings before establishing a committee. Figgs-Sanders pointed out that she and Wheeler-Bowman have lived the Black experience in St. Petersburg and already sit on Council.

“I don’t want us to lose sight of those resources as well,” she said.

And Wheeler-Bowman expressed concern that a committee would likely feature familiar faces, when what the problem needs is new people who aren’t already engaged civically.

“There’s a problem,” she said. “And it needs to be addressed. Do we need a committee to address that? I don’t think so.”