Op-ed: CB3 Deserves a Better Leader Than Gigi Li

Posted on: May 19th, 2014 at 2:15 pm by

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Gigi Li at Pier 42, May 2013

It is easy to condemn Nevada cattle rancher, Cliven Bundy, and LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling for their outrageous, racist statements. Both men easily fit into our idea of what bigots look like: ignorant and immoral spewing hatred from our Jim Crow past.

The blatant racism of this duo warranted the public lynching the two received. However, reducing racism to abhorrent speech and bigoted outbursts doesn’t address the deeper roots of inequality. It can only make us complicit bystanders in the more enduring racism hiding in plain sight.

Though we have made progress, we are still very much a nation grappling with a legacy of race and segregation. Race is embedded in the DNA of our country, and hidden in the tissue are the inequities of our politics, institutions, and economy. By making Bundy and Sterling our scapegoats, we fail to confront a system that impedes equal opportunity and disenfranchises specific groups of people.

More than attacking Bundy and Sterling as racist throwbacks, we have to attack the structural inequalities shackled along racial lines. And this is exactly what Community Board 3 member Ayo Harrington did in her letter to Chairwoman Gigi Li.

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She brings to light the fact that, in two years under Li’s leadership, not a single African-American or Latino board member was appointed to Chair or Co-Chair a committee. Ms. Harrington also points out how Chairwoman Li disingenuously applies opaque criteria to fill leadership appointments.

Harrington continues noting that Chair Li rejected the request of two board members, one of whom is black, to co-chair the Human Services, Health, Disability, & Seniors / Youth & Education committee. Li’s stated reason for the rejection was that Board by-laws do not allow for co-chairs. While this is technically correct, Ms. Li subsequently appointed two white members as co-chairs of the same committee in violation of the exact stipulation she had used to reject the first set of board members. Adding insult to injury, one of the individuals Ms. Li had selected to co-chair the committee in question was actually ineligible as he had been a board member for only six months. (An individual is required to have been a board member for a minimum period of one year before they are eligible to chair any committee, a rule invoked by Ms. Li when Ms. Harrington requested the same chairmanship). At bare minimum, what’s at play here is a gross double standard with clear racial overtones.

Often, the nuances that marginalize certain groups are only obvious to those who systematically experience them. Ms. Harrington’s letter refuses to allow anyone to hide behind ostensively colorblind ideology. She forces us to confront the racism entrenched in our institutions, laws and governance.

Whether Ms. Li herself has racial bias or intentions is not the substance of the debate. Rather, it is an examination of Community Board 3’s established practice among board chairs to enact policies that retain power for one group over another and which thus manifest along racial lines. Did Ms. Li bend to a tradition that exercises political muscle to uphold a system that discriminates?

Ms. Li has decided to look away, ignoring the glaring inequality at Community Board 3. Her complacency in upholding a system that retains privilege for certain constituencies while withholding the same for others is a failure in moral leadership.

There has been no better time than now to elect new leadership at Community Board 3. The Lower East Side deserves a leader who will focus on policies that are inclusionary and truly representative of the community. Unfortunately, under Ms. Li, the contrary has been the case.

-Written by Erin Harvey

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