ASHEVILLE – In a split vote, Buncombe government has joined Asheville City Council in passing a historic resolution apologizing for the county’s role in slavery and supporting reparations for Black people who live here.
The measure passed in a 4-3 party-line vote, with Democrats in favor, during county commissioners’ Aug. 4 meeting.
Like the resolution on reparations passed July 14 in Asheville, the measure approved by county commissioners does not mandate direct payments. Instead, it instructs county staff to prioritize racial equity in the implementation of the Buncombe County Strategic Plan.
That effort is to include but is not limited to:
- Taking steps to reduce the opportunity gap in the local public school systems.
- Increasing Black home ownership, business ownership and other strategies to support upward mobility and build generational wealth.
- Reducing disparities in health care and the justice system.
The resolution also commits Buncombe County to participating in Asheville’s Community Reparations Commission, which will determine funding and give other recommendations for investments in education, home ownership, health care and other areas with large racial disparities.
In addition to slavery, the resolution apologizes for county policies that have held up or contributed to segregation, discrimination and harm to Black communities through centuries.
“America always reminds me wherever I go that I’m the Black man in the room,” Commissioner Al Whitesides, a Democrat and the only Black member of the county board, said before the vote. “That’s the way it is. But this is something that we have got to get rid of and the only way we can do it is dealing with it. And when I look at our resolution, that’s what we’re doing.”
‘It’s time for us to do something’
At the county board’s July 21 meeting, dozens of members of the public called in to urge commissioners to join the city in its resolution for reparations. There initially did not appear to be enough support for the measure, with a notable holdout: Whitesides.
Whitesides, who participated in early local desegregation efforts, had said the county’s own groundbreaking initiatives on race were a form of reparations and it wasn’t necessary to join the city. But his mind has changed since then.
“It’s time for us to do something,” he said. “I just hope we have the guts to finish what we start.”
Whitesides said it’s especially important to address the “800-pound gorilla” of racism when “we have one of the most racist presidents that’s been in the White House during my time.”
“It’s a wonder that every Black man in America isn’t out there in the streets saying, ‘I’m gonna burn the place down’ because of what they’ve gone through,” he said. “But we’re not that way because we want to see changes. We want to see our kids, our grandkids and all be successful. Most of all, give Black people in this country a level playing field. That’s all we’re asking for.”
Democratic Chairman Brownie Newman read a written statement supporting the resolution. He noted that in the debate over Confederate monuments, “those who support preserving them in place often argue that we have to remember the past.”
“Yet, when we talk about the idea of community reparations, we oftentimes hear people say, ‘Slavery happened a long time ago. It’s not relevant anymore. We should focus on the future,’” he said.
Newman said Black and white people have lived together in America for 400 years, but for the first 250 years, most Black people were enslaved. For 100 years after that, “racial segregation and discrimination were central to our nation’s legal framework.”
“That legacy of 350 years of institutionalized slavery and discrimination live with us today,” he said.
The party-line vote
The Republican members of the board argued that the county already is seeking to address racial disparities in Buncombe through the its strategic plan, which passed earlier this year.
“I can’t support this in the way it is because, in my belief, you’ve already identified — our staff … they’re already working on this,” Commissioner Anthony Penland said.
Democratic Commissioner Amanda Edwards responded that the strategic plan was “written for all of Buncombe County residents.”
“What we are doing this evening is pulling a little bit out from that strategic plan and saying (to Black communities), ‘We see you, we hear you and we are committing to ensuring that the work behind that will support you,” she said.
GOP Commissioner Robert Pressley, who is running for board chair against Newman, criticized the number of resolutions the board has passed, saying that he wants “things to happen.”
“I don’t want it on a piece of paper; I want it done,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Belcher, also a Republican, took issue with the the resolution calling on “additional support from Congress” and bringing in “some political things.”
He said he would be willing to support investment in the Black community through financial votes supporting the reopening of minority business closed due to the pandemic, home-buyer education and down payment assistance to “help people move from public housing to the goal of home ownership.”
Democratic Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara said the history of the measure was “partly the apology and partly the public intention … in attempting to make amends around that” and that she thought putting that message down on paper was important for local leaders to do.
“There are some votes where I pray a lot more beforehand, and this is one of them,” she said. “And as a minister in particular, I’ve thought a lot about what my faith teaches me about sin and atonement and how you try to make amends. … I think as a community, as a society, that’s what we’re being called to do in this moment, is to speak more honestly than we have, to apologize for our sins of the past, to name sins of the present and to get very serious … as a community about repairing that harm.”
Read the resolution in full here:
Joel Burgess contributed to this report.
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