For the third straight day, city leaders desperately looked for solutions to resolve New York City’s escalating racial tensions. At issue, the city’s use of the “white man means walk” signal at New York’s pedestrian street crossings.
The protests started six months ago when persons of color began refusing to cross the street at intersections marked by the offensive signal. Initially, the protests were small and nonviolent. However, in July the movement reached a critical mass when activists pointed out that the choice to use the symbol for a “man” rather than a non-gendered person, reinforced gender stereotypes as well. Ten days ago, the protests turned violent. In addition to the specter of additional demonstrations, transportation and vehicular traffic has come to a halt as thousands of protesting citizens have engaged in a campaign of “militant” jaywalking.
On Friday, Mayor de Blasio issued the following statement: “I am ashamed of the decision of prior administrations to install these offensive street signals. I acknowledge they are racially insensitive. It saddens me that prior generations thought it was acceptable to use a “white man” to signal “good” and a “red man” to signal “bad.” I agree that our initial proposal to solve the problem by installing traffic signals that said “walk” and “stop” was misguided. As soon as it was pointed out to me that this reinforced the cultural stereotype that English is a mandatory language, I immediately appointed a task force to study this problem. However, it’s going to take us years to come to a solution and implement it. There are over 500,000 street crossing signals in the five boroughs and it is going to cost several billion dollars to replace them. I ask New Yorkers to pull together at this divisive moment and allow my Administration a three-month grace period to propose our solution. We are stronger when we stand together.”
Geneva Hall, an assistant professor of Sociology at Columbia University, has been appointed to head Mayor de Blasio’s committee tasked with solving this issue. On Saturday, NGEFTO spoke with Professor Hall, who offered the following: “Symbols matter. And it was long overdue for the city to acknowledge its callousness in choosing a simulacrum of a white man to tell women and persons of color whether they can walk or not walk. The smugness and patriarchy reinforced by these signals is chilling. It’s one step away from fascism! We are going to solve this problem in a way that empowers all New Yorkers, rather than the privileged few, to feel good about their decision to cross the street.”