Buncombe County joined its county seat, Asheville, in apologizing for slavery and approving plan to address racial inequalities.
In a vote split along party lines, Buncombe County in Western North Carolina passed a historic resolution on Tuesday supporting reparations for its Black residents.
The measure comes three weeks after the city of Asheville, the Buncombe County seat, made national headlines by approving a similar resolution. Like Asheville’s measure, the county’s resolution apologizes for local government’s role in slavery.
“Slavery represented an irreconcilable contradiction in our nation’s founding: a young democracy committed to the ideals of liberty and justice and yet actively perpetuating the degradation of Black people,” the Buncombe County measure stated.
The resolution went on to call slavery America’s “original sin,” and one that has yet to be fully addressed, WYFF reported.
In addition to slavery, the measure apologized for government policies that have contributed to segregation and discrimination against Black communities.
“America always reminds me wherever I go that I’m the Black man in the room,” said County Commissioner Al Whitesides prior to the board members’ vote. “That’s the way it is. But this is something that we have got to get rid of and the only way we can do it is dealing with it. And when I look at our resolution, that’s what we’re doing.”
What does this mean?
The measure, approved by the four Democrats on the government body but opposed by three Republican members, followed Asheville’s lead in that it does not mandate direct payments to citizens.
Instead, the Buncombe County board will charge its staff to prioritize racial equity in the provisions of the county’s strategic plan, The Asheville Citizen Times reported.
According to The Associated Press, the plan’s priorities include narrowing the opportunity gap in the local public school systems, reducing disparities in the health care and justice systems, increasing Black home and business ownership and fostering efforts to build generational wealth.
The resolution commits Buncombe County to appointing representatives to participate in Asheville’s Community Reparations Commission, which will determine funding and give additional recommendations for investments. The Asheville City Council hopes to report the next steps to its reparations plan within six months.
“America always reminds me wherever I go that I’m the Black man in the room.”Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides
In July, supporters of Asheville’s reparations referendum urged Buncombe County to back the measure as well. At first, county board members wavered in their support of Asheville’s groundbreaking resolution.
One of those board members was Whitesides, who felt that the county was already addressing racial disparities in Buncombe through a strategic plan it had passed earlier this year.
But national events, including growing momentum for reparation measures in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer in May, prompted the county commissioner to change his mind.
Whitesides said that it was particularly important to address the “800-pound gorilla” of racism when “we have one of the most racist presidents that’s been in the White House during my time,” the Citizen Times noted.
“It’s a wonder that every Black man my age in America isn’t out there in the streets saying, ‘I’m gonna burn the place down’ because of what they’ve gone through,” Whitesides said. “But we’re not that way because we want to see changes. We want to see our kids, our grandkids and all be successful. Most of all, give Black people in this country a level playing field. That’s all we’re asking for.”
The three Republican commissioners on the Buncombe County board were not swayed by Whitesides’ perspective, claiming, as Whitesides had done earlier, that issues of racial disparity had already been addressed in the county’s previous strategic plan.
“Let’s not pass another piece of paper,” commissioner Anthony Penland said, “We have already … passed a plan that already moves us forward and let’s look at that.”
According to WLOS, Commissioner Amanda Edwards countered Penland’s argument.
“The strategic plan was written for all of Buncombe County residents – Black, white, purple, polka dot, everyone. What we are doing this evening is pulling a little bit out from that strategic plan and saying ‘we see you, we hear you and we are committed to ensuring that the work behind that will support that,’” Edwards said.
Commissioner Joe Belcher, also a Republican, felt that the measure was too political. He took issue with language in the resolution that called for “additional support from Congress.”
Board Chairman Brownie Newman rebutted by turning a longstanding conservative argument against reparations on its head, noting that supporters of Confederate monuments often claim they are preserving history and remembering the past.
Yet when we talk about the idea of community reparations, we oftentimes hear people say, “‘Slavery happened a long time ago. It’s not relevant anymore. We should focus on the future,’” Newman said.
“That legacy of 350 years of institutionalized slavery and discrimination lives with us today,” he continued.