Two years ago, as violent protests shook Asheville and other cities after George Floyd was murdered while in Minneapolis police custody, the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission passed resolutions in support of reparations for Black residents, to make amends for historic discrimination. Acting at the same time, California established a task force to study and develop a plan for reparations in that state.

Last week, the task force overseeing California’s reparations effort released the first part of its work: a landmark 500-page report documenting nearly two centuries of systemic discrimination imposed by the state, the harm it caused, and what needs to be done to attempt to address that harm. 

The California report arrives just before the Asheville and Buncombe Community Reparations Commission will meet for just the third time. The meeting is scheduled for Monday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Harrah’s Cherokee Center, 87 Haywood St.

The meeting is open to the public and can also be viewed via live-streaming on the City of Asheville’s YouTube channel.

The Community Reparations Commission, composed of 25 members and six alternates, previously met in April and May. Its stated goal, according to the underlying resolution, is to issue a report to the City and other participating community groups for incorporation into their priorities and plans.

“The report and the resulting budgetary and programmatic priorities may include but not be limited to increasing minority home ownership and access to other affordable housing, increasing minority business ownership and career opportunities, strategies to grow equity and other generational wealth, closing the gaps in health care, education, employment and pay, neighborhood safety and fairness within criminal justice,” the city resolution states.

Same Issues, Different States

As they start preparing their own eventual report, the local Reparations Commission members might find the California study useful. It details how the current wealth gap between Black and white Americans is the direct result of slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and other government policies that locked Blacks into sub-par schools, shoddy housing, poor public health outcomes, and heavily policed communities.

“Segregation, racial terror, harmful racist neglect, and other atrocities in nearly every sector of civil society have inflicted harms, which cascade over a lifetime and compound over generations,” the report said.

The task force said this interim report is the most extensive documentation on government discrimination against the Black community since the Kerner Commission report, published in 1968. Still to come in California is a second report detailing proposals to pay for reparations.

Some people who oppose paying reparations in California argue that the state did not have plantations or Jim Crow era laws, as in the South.

But the newly released report points out how California, despite being “free,” perpetuated harms that were made worse over the generations. 

Many of the issues raised in the California report are all too familiar to Black residents here in western North Carolina.

For example, the report details the existence of numerous “sundown towns” in California, which were communities that prohibited Black Americans from living within their borders. 

“In three places, at least, in North Carolina a Negro is not allowed to stay over night,” Gilbert Thomas Stephenson wrote in “Race Distinctions in American Law” (1910). “They are Canton (Haywood County), Mitchell, and Madison Counties, all in the western part of the State. Negroes may work unmolested all day,  but, if they linger after nightfall, they are reminded that it would not be healthy for them to remain during the night.”

The California report also documents the state’s history of urban renewal and highway projects that dismantled once thriving Black neighborhoods, wiping out or diminishing generations of wealth accumulation.

Urban renewal also eviscerated the previously thriving Southside neighborhood where about half of Asheville’s Black population lived before being displaced in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the largest such projects in the Southeastern United States.

An estimated 1,200 Black-owned homes and businesses were lost under the program, which residents derisively refer to as “Urban Removal.”

Records and data analyzed by Asheville Watchdog also reveal stark racial imbalances in Asheville and Buncombe County in home ownership and affordable housing, in educational achievement and opportunities, in the availability of jobs, in business ownership, in arrests and incarcerations and other facets of the judicial and social justice systems, and in healthcare.

Blacks largely have been priced out of the housing market, both for home ownership and rentals. The combination of rising real estate prices and fewer opportunities for well-paying jobs has forced many Blacks to look for homes elsewhere.

Harm Lasts Generations

In Asheville, as in California, the harm done by discriminatory policies can last for generations, and indeed continues to persist today.

For example, such policies have resulted in stark disparities between Black and other racial groups, the California task force report found. Blacks make up less than 6% of California’s population, yet about 28% of people imprisoned in California are Black, the report states; in 2019 more than one-third of minors ordered into state juvenile detention facilities were Black.

In Buncombe County, Blacks made up 6.3 percent of the population in the 2020 census, but 30 percent of the jailed population in January 2022 was Black. 

In Asheville, 11.1 percent of the population identified as Black in the 2020 census, down from 17.6 percent just 20 years earlier. City officials attributed the stunning decline to a combination of white influx and Black exodus. 

The California task force report calls for “comprehensive reparations” for those harmed by a history of government-sanctioned oppression.

The proposed Office of Freedmen Education and Social Services would offer free tuition for Black students in private K-12 education and those pursuing higher education in the state. It would also ensure that school curricula reflect a more “expansive discussion of the experiences of Black Americans in a way that is accurate and honest,” the report said.

In North Carolina, the Republican-controlled state assembly last year passed, on strict party-line voting, a bill that would have forbidden public school teachers from “indoctrinating” students with concepts on race and racism, including systemic racism. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the bill. 

The California task force called for a Cabinet-level secretary position to oversee an African American Affairs agency with branches for civic engagement, education, social services, cultural affairs and legal affairs. Such an agency would help people research and document their lineage to a 19th-century ancestor so they could qualify for financial restitution.

The initial California recommendations also include changes in the prison system, including paying inmates fair market wages, allowing them to vote, and allowing people with felony convictions to serve on juries.

The resolution passed by the Asheville City Council in June 2020 echoes many of the sentiments covered in the California report. It directs the City Manager to offer recommendations “to specifically address the creation of generational wealth and address reparations due in the Black community.” 

The Community Reparations Commission has identified five main areas it will focus on to seek to redress past wrongs: Housing, education, economic development, public health and criminal justice.

To help accomplish its goals, the City of Asheville set aside $2.1 million to help fund the initial reparations planning, and Buncombe County has proposed a 2022-2023 budget that includes $2 million for reparations. However, Community Reparations Commission members have said they don’t believe that amount is nearly enough to accomplish their goals, and have asked the government bodies to make funding for reparations a part of all future budgets, instead of just a one-time expenditure.

Neither the City Council nor the County Commission has responded to that request.

In addition to Monday’s Community Reparations Commission meeting, another meeting is scheduled for June 27 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Buncombe County Conference Room, 200 College St.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Scott Carroll is an award-winning reporter and Report for America corps member covering reparations and social justice.