Buncombe's Asheville: Reparations Still Idling - TribPapers

Buncombe’s Asheville: Reparations Still Idling

Assistant County Manager DK Wesley cedes the mic to CRC Chair Dr. Dwight Mullen. Screenshot.

Asheville – Christine Edwards of Civility Local Zoomed into the Buncombe County Commissioners’ briefing to present the response plan developed by the Reparations Commission. She reminded the county commissioners that on December 5, the CRC “passed an immediate recommendation to end further harm by ceasing repetition of institutional processes that lead to racially disparate outcomes.” That ambition then had problems getting off the ground because nobody was exactly sure what those processes might be.

So, it followed that both Asheville and Buncombe County should “conduct an official audit to ensure compliance with federal and state laws, regulatory bodies, codes of conduct, court orders, and consent decrees confirming that further harm to the African-American community has ended.” To do this, the CRC was asking permission from the city and county to “consider adoption of a resolution authorizing staff to develop a scope of work that will lead to the selection of a firm to conduct the requested audit.” Edwards said the CRC expects that a firm can be hired by spring and that it will identify harmful laws and precedents in government and make recommendations sometime during the summer.

The floor was opened briefly for comments, and County Commissioner Amanda Edwards asked, more or less, if Christine Edwards was sure this expenditure represented a wise use of the finite funding allocated to the CRC; that is, it would consume funds that could be paid outright to persons suffering the harms of which Christine Edwards spoke. Having received an affirmative answer from Assistant County Manager DK Wesley, Amanda Edwards next wanted to know more about the audit since the concept was unfamiliar to her. Wesley replied that, to her knowledge, such a thing had never been done. So, the CRC was expecting city and county staff, with guidance from CRC Chair Dr. Dwight Mullen, to develop something based on, for example, ADA compliance audits.

Mullen said that to date, the commission has been working with unofficial data from sources like student papers and reports from consultants on topics that weren’t germane to reparations. Mullen wanted the auditors to have access to official data, but since nobody on the commission was a professional researcher, getting the numbers was adding too much “time and chaos” to the process. Asked by a couple commissioners what would be done if no firm could be found to do the audit, Mullen said, “I expect that we’re going to have people falling out of the trees to do this,” among whom would be “some very reputable researchers.”

Data was needed on housing, education, physical and mental healthcare, economic development, and justice. It had to extend from the policymaking process to the outcomes, and Mullen was confident official data would clearly show what actions should be prioritized. The schedule presented by Christine Edwards, he said, was very tentative, and the life of the commission may have to be extended until adequate data is acquired.

Private Sector’s Role

Later in the meeting, Mullen added, “A good part of the harm to the African-American community did not come through government; it came through the private sector. And so the role of the private sector has yet to be researched completely. Let me give you an example of that. The government is not responsible for mortgage loans, and the idea of homeownership is a key factor in the resolutions passed by the city and county.”

Another part of the response plan spoke of “truth-seeking,” which involved collecting the stories of members of the community. Mullen said people would come to CRC meetings wanting to tell their stories, and compiling them was very important but almost too much to handle on top of all the other things the CRC was doing, and what they were doing could be very emotionally taxing.
Newman asked for somebody to expand upon the aspersion that had been cast about the CRC having difficulty obtaining data. He said everybody in county leadership wants them to have access to the data they need. Was the process flawed?

He was told the process was slow, typically with turnaround times of a month or two, and the CRC had submitted 68 requests. Another problem is that the sorting of data along demographic lines for public records is new to some fields, like healthcare. Also, some records that aren’t kept locally may have been kept at the state level. Mullen said another reason for hiring a third-party research group is that people can be hesitant when asked questions like why they were overlooked for promotion or paid less than their peers.

CRC Vice Chair Dewana Little said, “Trust is a thing,” and, when talking with “potential perpetuators,” she “had to be intentional.” She continued, “Even if the county gave us everything, or the city gave us everything that we requested as far as data, the trust of those numbers or the data that’s being received is always going to be a question, and so it’s like this is a way to get a third party to come in and get us the data that we’ve been requesting—at this point for months—and be able to give us some concrete data that we can utilize to support what we already assume is the reality based on the reality of today, but have the facts to back it up.”

After some discussion, the commissioners were of the opinion that the audit would be fine for tracking compliance, with Chair Brownie Newman stating that for any instances of noncompliance, “I certainly think we would all want to know that and do something about it.” He, however, foresaw less time and less chaos churning by pursuing truth-seeking via another process conducted by another group with different talents. Mullen concurred but indicated not much thought had gone into designing that group yet.

Commissioner Al Whitesides spoke about the way the CRC had been funded with “a pot of money, $4.1 million, and that’s the most in the six years that I’ve been on the commission, folks, that we have given to any initiative.” He wanted members of the CRC to appreciate that the funding had been awarded upfront and that future commissions are free to discontinue funding on any level at any time. Wesley only replied that the CRC intended to spend the resources it had already received on its own recommendations.