Asheville – Buncombe County commissioners voted to match the City of Asheville in allocating $500,000 annually in reparations to local African-Americans.
The meeting chambers were overfilled with people who wished to share their support for reparations. They complained that institutions in the United States have prevented African-Americans The term African-Americans was the term of choice for the evening, representing a reversion from the more recently preferred “blacks,” “people of color,” or “BIPOC.” from accumulating generational wealth. Beyond slavery, these included Jim Crow laws, redlining, and urban renewal. Many viewed policies that severely and disproportionately disadvantage African-Americans as intentional expressions of systemic racism.
Their complaint went beyond the classical liberal, cause-and-effect observation that any policy is, by definition, restrictive, and well-connected people of means are better equipped to absorb the losses or negotiate personal workarounds. Government actions that bulldozed African-American neighborhoods in the 1900s were targeting crime and blight, and in the minds of many Americans at the time, all “colored people” were shiftless criminals. Was this why the ladies at this meeting were, unconventionally, wearing their shoulder bags up to the stand when it was their turn for public comment?
Regardless, the Reparations Commission remains in its organizational phases. Meetings are being held to make appointments, listen to invited speakers, and solicit community input to define what the problem is before making any allocations. Throughout the night, speakers repeated that each person had their own definition of what reparations should be. Another repeated comment was that, despite universal aspirations for peace, love, and understanding, it would always remain beyond the reach of a white person to comprehend the “lived experience” of African-Americans.
The commissioners had already budgeted $2 million this year for reparations, and they were being asked to make it a policy to set aside a defined percentage of all future budgets, in perpetuity, for that purpose. It has been repeatedly stated that there are not enough resources in the universe to reverse the injustices perpetrated against African-Americans since the colonialization of the Western Hemisphere. The number $5 trillion was “thrown out there” as if it might be enough. Speakers told the commissioners not to worry about spending millions on an undefined concept; it was their job to set aside the money, and the job of the Reparations Commission to sort out how to spend it.
Voicing a minority opinion was Bruce O’Connell, who lost the ’20 GOP primary for Congress. He self-identified as a Jewish-American and said that down through history, his people had known oppression. As slaves in Egypt, they built the pyramids. The Nazis called for the extermination of the entire race. And yet, he was not asking for reparations.
O’Connell said he fully supported making reparations, but through a strategy designed to be impactful. Questions he thought needed to be addressed included: Would reparations be paid exclusively to African-Americans, or could other cultures oppressed in this country, like Native Americans, lay claim to some cash? How much African American blood would one need to qualify for reparations? 1/32? 1/4? If his company applies for reparations, how many African-American employees defined by the last question would he have to retain? Under what terms would recipients who squander one year’s reparations be eligible for future payments?
O’Connell said reparations “work both ways,” seeming to imply there was a supply and a demand side. The commission had only looked at the latter, and two wrongs wouldn’t make a right. He then publicly volunteered to be a non-African American, supply-side voice on the commission.
When the county commissioners took turns commenting, Robert Pressley was the first to deviate from the mainline. He said he didn’t like the word “reparations,” as he thought society owed everybody a fair chance to prosper. He spoke of growing up poor in his grandmother’s house on Burton Street. He was able to succeed with help and determination. “We’ve all been through it,” he said.
Pressley said he “needed to understand where we’re going and what we could do before just throwing the money.” He recalled several times before when the commissioners had applied icing to the cake just to claim accomplishment or participation, times when they paid lip service when they should have been doing something. He later asked if the commission was not speaking out of both sides of its mouth as it currently displaces people from Lee Walker Heights, as it did the people on Eagle Market Street. He’s spoken to people who, through the policies of these revitalization programs, feel like the county is paying them to get out of town. He concluded, saying, “Al? You beat me to being last.”
It was the moment for which all were waiting. Commissioner Al Whitesides now had the microphone, and he didn’t disappoint. Not reading from notes, he delivered a hero’s soliloquy worthy of a classic novel made into a movie. “How much time do I get?” he began.
He told of his past: growing up with goodly parents who prepared him for a world of racism; going to college where he was arrested 14 times for demonstrating for civil rights. Like all others, he was supportive of reparations if they could be designed to truly liberate the oppressed. The chain of humanity is only as strong as its weakest link, and a rising tide lifts all boats.
Whitesides supported the Reparations Commission’s work to date but said he could not support funding them in perpetuity. In the sense of restraining government from continuing to or beginning to cripple any segment of society, leveling the playing field, he said, should run through every single dollar in the county’s budget. He wanted the county to heal from its misdeeds. If the Reparations Commission was going to be successful, it would work itself out of a job, and the day would come when current and persistent oppression would cease. It would not be easy and fast, but much patience would be required. So, to help solve the problem as quickly and thoroughly as possible, he was not going to support the perverse incentive of subsidizing job security for reparations workers.
After suggesting a few more changes to the proposal from the Reparations Commission, Whitesides moved for the county to match the City of Asheville in making an annual $500,000 contribution toward reparations, but only for as long as the funding is needed. Chair Brownie Newman said from what he’s read, local governments did have a significant role in creating the disparities that exist today. With 20/20 hindsight, though, he viewed the results more as unintended consequences, not believing anybody was out to hurt anybody. His friendly amendment to include an escalator for inflation was accepted, and the motion passed 7-0.