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Hillsborough looking to build a more inclusive community | Editorial

Now it’s time to back up the well-meaning symbolism with substance

Local officials in Hillsborough County took important steps recently to acknowledge the history of racism and to chart a better course. The declarations by the Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission are meaningful starting points. But officials need to match the symbolism with substance to create a more inclusive community.

By a 5-0 vote, with commissioners Stacy White and Ken Hagan absent, the board approved a resolution Wednesday declaring racism a public health crisis. The commission’s only Black member, Chairman Les Miller, who is leaving office in November after decades in political life, spoke movingly of his own experience — a history where skin color shaped everything from his own personal health to his interactions with police during a traffic stop.

The resolution, brought forward by Bible-Based Fellowship, a non-denominational ministry in Carrollwood, correctly underscored that the region’s prosperity depended on “equitable access to opportunity for every resident.” To that end, the measure includes a 10-point call to action, as the Tampa Bay Times' C.T. Bowen reported, ranging from promoting diversity through minority contracting opportunities to providing racial equity training. Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren and Public Defender Julianne Holt both spoke in favor of the resolution.

The county’s move followed a unanimous vote by the Tampa City Council earlier this month to approve a non-binding resolution apologizing for the city’s own racist history. The measure called out the city’s “past participation in sanctioning segregation” and its involvement in the systematic discrimination of Black Americans. The move, which also drew broad political and faith-based support, is expected to be a launching pad for a closer examination of how race impacts incarceration, employment, housing and other areas at the local level. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor embraced the measure as a step by the city to shoulder “accountability for our past.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a racial reawakening across the country in response to incidents of police violence against African Americans. But after a summer of protests nationwide, communities are still wrangling over how to turn demonstrations into durable social change.

The resolutions by these two local governments in Hillsborough are only symbolic starting points. But they also are public acknowledgements of a community’s mindset, and markers for the priorities and goals of those in elected office. Going forward, they can shape more inclusive policies on everything from public spending and hiring to decisions about housing, education, public health and job and land development.

Local officials need to act while this issue remains firmly on the public’s radar. The state attorney and public defender are valuable resources in exploring disparities in the criminal justice system and proposing reforms. The city and county should work in tandem on ways local government can ensure that public services are equitably distributed across neighborhoods. Nonprofits and religious institutions could be contact points for new mentoring, social services and training programs. And don’t forget the business community. The Tampa Bay Partnership, an industry development and civic advocacy group, recently provided an eye-opening snapshot of how racial disparities across the region undermine the area’s competitive appeal.

No community can erase its past. By looking to learn from it, and promising a more enlightened future, Tampa and Hillsborough have at least set expectations for treating their citizens more fairly. The challenge now is to back up the symbolism with action.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news