Asheville’s politicians attract national attention with pledges and reparations to boost prospects of the area’s Black population.
Al Whitesides is an Asheville native, a Buncombe County commissioner and a retiree after more than 40 years in banking. He is also a veteran civil rights activist and a Black man who grew up in a segregated society.
“Asheville is a pretty progressive town, but you still have some things come up that remind you of the past in the way people interact with each other,” he says. “I can be out, and people will come up and say, ‘Commissioner, you’re the smartest Black man I’ve ever met’ and think that’s a compliment.”
On Aug. 4, he and the three other commissioners approved a resolution in Buncombe County designed to close racial disparities. The 4-3 vote followed a unanimous decision by Asheville City Council on July 14 to establish a reparations plan for the community. The actions, which included an apology for participating in and sanctioning slavery, attracted national publicity as the first municipal government in the South and among few in the nation to explicitly favor reparations for Black residents, according to national media reports.
The proposal entails reallocating city funds into programs aimed at closing the wealth gap between Black and white residents in the community of about 93,000 people. It didn’t mention directly paying its Black residents, which is how reparations are often defined. Councilman Keith Young, who spearheaded the effort and is one of two Black council members in Asheville, called that an intentional, strategic decision.
“We never ruled out any tangible things of what reparations should be, we just didn’t mention it; we left that door wide open for future conversation,” says Young, who works as a clerk for the N.C. court system. “What we have done is acknowledge that there is a problem — so it is acknowledged, it is on record — and we have also acknowledged that we must try to fix it.”
While Young has received both praise and criticism for the plan, he says highlighting practices and policies that institutions can enact will advance the fight for racial justice more than direct payments. “We’ve made it — in its simplest form — something that you can build around,” Young says. “You can build other resolutions around it, other ordinances around it; it’s something that’s going to be perpetual.”
National polls routinely show a majority of Americans oppose reparations, which would cost trillions of dollars to bring the average net worth of Black families to equal those of white ones. Another key objection is that non-Black families whose ancestors emigrated to the U.S. after the abolition of slavery in 1865 shouldn’t bear such a burden. But Robert Thomas, the community liaison for Asheville’s Racial Justice Coalition, says what happened after 1865 is critical. “Any time that I present on reparations, I don’t even really use slavery as the basis. I use everything after that,” he says.
While Black people only make up about 12% of Asheville’s population and 6.3% of Buncombe’s, the city shares the same story as Charlotte, Durham and other more integrated N.C. cities where Black neighborhoods were uprooted by urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s. As new road networks were added in those years, many residents were forced out of their homes and into public housing with an unfulfilled pledge that they could eventually rebuild in their former areas, Thomas says.
“That is what completely destroyed our economic floor here,” he says. “All the way into minor things, such as implicit biases and what comes into play when a Black person goes into a bank and tries to receive a loan.”
About a quarter of Asheville’s Black households live in poverty. While median income overall is $42,000, it’s $30,000 for Black families, according to U.S. Census data. The statistics don’t include the adjacent town of Biltmore Forest, where fewer than 3% of the 1,500 residents are nonwhite, and the median income tops $140,000.
Asheville native DeWayne Barton says urban renewal continues to affect the city’s historically Black neighborhoods. He founded and runs Hood Huggers International, which offers local history tours.
“We show them that it’s the same thing, and it’s in a different name, or in a different wig with high heels on,” Barton says. “There’s another highway expansion that’s about to come through here that’s going to affect the same neighborhoods as urban renewal, so nothing has changed.”
Barton notes that past policies to uplift the Black community have had little success. He favors an “infrastructure” that connects resources like schools and other institutions to change the culture of the Black businesses.
“Know that everybody has a role to make this hustle happen,” Barton says. “It’s going to take blood, policy and resources.”
Asked to discuss the reparations plan, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce provided a statement noting that a key goal of its “community visioning process,” called AVL Greater, is shared prosperity. “We’ve operationalized that focus through our new program on economic mobility for people of color,” according to the statement. “The Inclusive Hiring Partners initiative [announced Aug. 5] is the result of a long-term, collaborative effort to address racial disparities in our workforce.”
The initiative focuses on mentorship, skills and training, and employment with the goal of providing better, more equal employment opportunities for people of color in Asheville.
Racial disparities are “not something that can be remedied overnight, but we’ve got to start,” Whitesides says. “We just can’t keep talking about it. To be honest with you, I’m tired of seeing us pass the 800-pound gorilla that is racism down generation after generation.”
Whitesides hopes the county’s five-year plan creates a foundation for action by future commissioners. “To survive in America, I have to know how it is to survive being Black in a white society, let’s face it,” he adds. “When you’re white in America, you make all the rules; you don’t really give a care about what people of color are going through. When you hear that, you can’t dodge that.”
As Asheville navigates its new plan, local politicians are “doing their part to pass on the torch to a different generation to hopefully make life a little bit better, a little bit fairer and more equitable,” Young says. “So hopefully, we’ll be able to walk along the same path as our white brothers and sisters here.” ■