In a path breaking act of penitence, the Asheville city council voted 7-0 to provide reparations to Black community members. The legacy of slavery is active in Asheville, as it is in the rest of the state. Given that Asheville produced some of the more racially liberal North Carolina politicians such as Senator Jeter Pritchard, it is perhaps not surprising that this cradle of Mountain progressivism should lead North Carolina in racial reconciliation. The Land of the Sky distinguished itself once again.
For our state to come together after a violent racial history stretching back to before the Founding of the United States, Asheville’s brave move must be the beginning, not the end. As Gene Nichol has observed, African American North Carolinians suffer from slavery’s aftereffects in every area of social life. The state maintains a large and growing achievement gap in public education. Black students make up 26% of the student population but receive 52% of the suspensions. Twice as many Black as white North Carolinians live in poverty; for children, the disparity is even more dramatic. Black North Carolinians possess only 6% of the wealth of their white counterparts. While African Americans make up 21% of the state’s population, they constitute over 50% of inmates in state prisons.
None of these disparities are coincidental. Each can be traced to intentional policy efforts to construct and maintain a racial caste system in this state. The wealth gap was caused by generations of total economic theft in the form of chattel slavery and decades of redlining in cities like Raleigh. Poverty results from denial of access to high-wage jobs–going back to the rigidly segregated textile industry–and a safety net kept threadbare by politicians who used the issue to divide white and black poor people. Our atrocious system of mass incarceration comes from extensive state prison construction programs.
Furthermore, these historically determined disparities are geographically concentrated. The communities with the worst poverty are disproportionately African American, often located in the northeastern part of the state or along the South Carolina border. It is no coincidence that these were the regions with the largest plantation slave labor camps and the most active Red Shirt racial terrorist organizations. History, like power, discriminates based on place.
Because policy and geography so deeply influence our edifice of racial injustice, a reparations policy must take account of place and policy. Every community affected by slavery, redlining and mass incarceration should receive large Community Development Block Grants. One North Carolina Fund incentives should be reconfigured to take account of racial demographics. State income taxpayers should receive a mortgage-principal deduction when they purchase homes in neighborhoods starved of investment by redlining.
Like a human body, the wounds inflicted on a state are deeper in some places than in others. But as John F. Kennedy, the first president in the 20th century to propose a major civil rights bill, said, “no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” North Carolinians, as one people dedicated to righting historical wrongs, should provide reparations to Black communities. Asheville was the beginning; let it not be the end.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.