On May 18, 2020, a New York State Joint Assembly and Senate Legislative Hearing was held to explore solutions to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.  The First Vice-Chair of the Commission to Dismantle Racism and Discrimination, Hon. Rose H. Sconiers, testified on behalf of the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable.  The Roundtable was convened in 2015 by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and includes, among its members, the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe.

Current data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on minority  communities based on rates of infection, hospitalization and fatalities from the disease.  It has placed a spotlight on the reality that systemic injustices in our society causes the most vulnerable to suffer the most.  The coronavirus is ravaging communities of color that are already struggling with poverty and conflict.

The Roundtable’s work is rooted in data and focused on systems change.   Its analysis of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color reveals that that social determinants of health are as follows:

  • 40% of the social determinants of health are related to economic status.
  • 30% of the determinants are related to health behaviors such as tobacco use, diet and exercise, alcohol and drug use and sexual activity.
  • 20% are attributed to access to and quality of care and
  • 10% to physical environment: Air and Water quality and Housing and Transit.

The Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable has advanced ten initiatives which are captured primarily within the 40% of the social determinants of health related to social and economic factors. These factors include:  education, employment and income, family and social supports and community safety.

The Roundtable also focuses on creating the conditions for systems change, with Narrative Change and Racial Healing as threads which runs through all the Roundtable initiatives.

The Roundtable has partnered with over 250 organizations representing government, business, faith and nonprofit leaders in addressing the social determinants of health.  It will continue to work with this cross-sector partnership in addressing the socioeconomic factors of the social determinants of health.

National Day of Racial Healing 2020

On the National Day of Racial Healing, January 15, 2020, the Commission to Dismantle Racism and Discrimination and the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable, along with several other local partners, hosted a talk by Richard Rothstein, author of the book “The Color of Law.” More than 500 people attended the event at Elim Christian Fellowship, which included a community reception and a book signing.

“The Color of Law” is an award-winning book that explores how housing policies, practices and procedures racially divided our country. According to Rothstein, much of the racial inequity in America today results from the intensification of residential segregation in the twentieth century. His interest in the topic began when he was an education reporter investigating racial gaps in educational achievement. He found the strongest explanations for these gaps were the consequences of life in substandard, overcrowded housing – high stress, lead poisoning and asthma, which keeps children up at night wheezing. “The civil rights movement of the 1960’s left untouched the biggest segregation of all – residential segregation,” he said.

For too long, Rothstein said, we accepted the national myth that racially divided communities “just happened” and were the result of private preferences for living in same race neighborhoods. His research, however, reveals a very different story of deliberate, legally endorsed public policy, implemented through a complex mix of federal loan restrictions, public housing, zoning ordinances, tax exemptions, transportation policy, real estate industry practices and political compromise.  During his visit to Buffalo, Rothstein called for a new civil rights movement, a resurgence of the 1960’s aimed at addressing residential segregation, saying that the persistence of residential segregation is “wrong, immoral and harmful, not just to blacks but whites as well.”

History of the Commission

The Diocese of Western New York’s Commission to Dismantle Racism and Discrimination was reborn in September 2018 when the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, visited the diocese to meet with the commission and give a public lecture.

“She presented fascinating information on the origins of racism in this country and on the particular ways segregation remains a significant issue in Buffalo, and she challenged us with her call that it isn’t up to Black people to explain racism to white people,” Canon Cathy Dempesy-Sims said. “Rather, it is up to white people to make the effort to listen and learn from others on how to bridge the divide that leads to the indiscriminate murders of Black people in this country.”

In the spring of 2019, the Bishop James Theodore Holly Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE), which includes several commission members, hosted the UBE’s Northeast Regional Conference in Niagara Falls. The weekend event included conversations based on Becoming Beloved Community, the Episcopal Church’s vision document on racial reconciliation, which includes the four quadrants of the Becoming Beloved Community labyrinth:  telling the truth, repairing the breach, proclaiming the dream, and practicing the way of love. The conversations were designed to help shape the action plan of the commission. Read a summary of the conversations.

To learn more about the commission and its work, email:

The Rev. Matt Lincoln, chair

The Honorable Rose Sconiers, first vice chair