Opinion

Activists Fault City’s Approach to Equity

Activists complained city council’s needlessly complex rules and high-tech access aren’t helping historically-disadvantaged populations.

Asheville – It’s promulgated as a form of Stockholm syndrome that cannot be obliterated. According to the popular narrative, African-Americans in the United States will not or cannot move beyond defining themselves in terms of the enslavement of their ancestors. It would be like Jewish people–instead of identifying themselves with celebrated cultural ancestors like Moses and Abraham, or any number of great academics, artists, and professionals–choosing to live in the shadow of the Nazis, daily committing human sacrifice by self-immolating their potential on the altars of the false gods of those who, generations ago, denied their humanity and wanted them dead.

A second problem with today’s approach to equity and inclusion is that, instead of encouraging a search for common ground, a tried and true first-step in relationship-building, it seeks to put people in silos. It assigns identities based on race and gender, orders people to stay in their lanes, and tells everybody they hate the Other in ways that stain their souls so terribly there is neither reform nor redemption.

Rob Thomas, a regular participant in Asheville City Council’s public comment periods since the Defund the Police movement began, shined a little light under the heavy lid race baiters want to impose on everybody when he referenced people with a “savior complex” attempting to be the voice for the voiceless, as if African-Americans need help expressing themselves. Thomas was complaining about how council, after committing to equity, inclusion, reparations, and more–had just consented to awarding the bulk of this cycle’s federal Community Development Block Grants to organizations run by White people. 

David Greenson also faulted council for promulgating equity and inclusion only via paper. He, like Thomas, is now a regular participant in public comment, and, with Thomas, was listed as one of two contacts on BlackAVLDemands.org. Greenson argued it is nearly impossible for those on the wrong side of the digital divide to read council’s agenda and the associated staff reports in the narrow window of time between its publication and the cutoff for public comment. It doesn’t help that one must have online access to keep up with the changing rules, either. 

No rule will please everybody, but at least the current COVID shutdown setup is filtering out hundreds of anonymous seminar callers who had been participating from outside the city limits. Caller Kim Roney also noted one could now participate without hiring a babysitter and catching a bus. But Max Mandler said the new system, “shows that you don’t want to hear from people who don’t have time to write up a whole thing or don’t have time to be super-involved in the comings or goings of the city, but still want to have a say in what happens in their city. Is that not what democracy is all about?”

Public criticism of council members as anti-racist in name only also followed a discussion of a proposed Business Inclusion Policy intended to “address race and gender-based disparities in city contracting and procurement.” Greenson complained the city’s 2018 disparity study cited by the policy lumped two distinct demographics with vastly different challenges together when it concluded women and minorities were awarded only 82 cents of every dollar they could have received from city contracts. Slicing the data another way, he said black people were awarded only 22 cents on the potential dollar, whereas women received $1.62. He said it was like the One Buncombe fund that said over half its awards went to women and people of color, but white women constituted over 70% of that “over half.” Then, Roney argued the city should amend the policy to also elevate for special consideration bids received from the LGTBQ community. 

The meeting had begun with several callers, presumably commenting on the consent agenda, leaning on council to apply the proceeds from the sale of property to White Labs, Inc. to reparations. The angle was so obtuse that Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer had to explain. She said the callers were referencing Item C, which called for the suspension of the sale or rezoning of any city-owned property acquired through urban renewal. The objective would be to develop policies for leveraging the land to develop affordable housing as a form of reparations instead.

An exception, identified in the staff report, was a parcel under contract to be sold to White Labs. The deal was made as part of a performance-based economic development incentive for that company. Manheimer concurred that the property’s title had a complex history, but only a portion was acquired through urban renewal. The building, for example, was constructed c. 1916 to house the police department’s horses. 

Thickening the plot, Manheimer said council had already voted in closed session to use the proceeds of the sale of that parcel to purchase land for the expansion of the transit station downtown. In other words, a portion of the sale was “already earmarked for [an] important community investment.” 

Furthermore, the portion of proceeds from the sale to White Labs deemed inure from any prior acquisition made with federal funds must be spent in compliance with federal guidelines. Those guidelines already require the property to be used to benefit low- and moderate-income families, but, as Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball explained, the federal guidelines forbid discrimination on the basis of race. In December, Council will make a determination, with public input, on the dispensation of proceeds from the sale attributable to any portion of the property unaffected by any of the above.