By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – At a recent meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners, Commissioner Anthony Penland, sparing no outrage, exclaimed, in not so many words, that if people in Buncombe County were being denied medical treatment, whether in the hospital or by EMS, because of their skin color, heads needed to roll.
Interestingly enough that was not what his Democrat peers were saying. They were talking about more subtle forms of racism, a force they claim has, since Emancipation, maintained generational poverty, held back African-American scholastic achievement, limited career access, and prevented wealth accumulation they explained.
Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Amanda Edwards, who had drafted the resolution supporting reparations for the August 4 meeting, spoke of learning how America was founded in racism, built its economy on slavery, continued segregation through Jim Crow laws, denied blacks equal rights, and allowed lynchings. Today, they said, the harms of institutional racism manifest in rates of infant mortality, life expectancy, incarceration, income, homeownership, and business ownership.
Penland spoke against the resolution, saying it was more words than action; “reparations,” in fact, being a trigger word. He didn’t think patronizing any particular group as if skin color signaled a need for special treatment, was the way to go about eliminating racism.
As an elected official, he said he considered it his job to make sure every citizen has equal access to opportunities. What’s more, the commissioners had already agreed in their strategic plan to address systemic racism, and the staff was already working on it.
Edwards said she had spoken with constituents angered by the word “reparations,” and they were surprised when they actually read the document and found the county wasn’t “writing checks for,” but “investing in” services. She said she didn’t grow up wealthy and was a single mom; but with blond hair, blue eyes, white skin, and a “very Caucasian sounding name,” she was the type of person to get calls back for job interviews. She viewed the resolution as an affirmation to the black community that the commissioners saw, heard, and were committed to the Black Asheville Demands agenda.
Commissioner Al Whitesides, a distinguished banker, now retired, with one of those “long as one’s arm” resume, spoke briefly about his experiences with racism. His father had worked three jobs to buy his first house. Whitesides was fortunate to get a good education, but people would often say, “You know, for a black man, you’re smart.” He has gone to restaurants and had the waitress walk around him to wait on a white person and come back and say, “’Oh, Commissioner, I didn’t recognize you.’” Whitesides said he is still, “the black man in the room.”
Even today, he is finding himself having the same discussions with his grandchildren that his grandfather had had with him, about what to do when they get stopped by the police. When he served on the school board, he heard of teachers wanting to get the African-American kids out of their classes because they “were too difficult to deal with.” Blacks, he said, have to survive in two societies. “If you’re white, you get to make all the rules, and you don’t give a care.”
Commissioner Robert Pressley said his kids were not brought up to treat people that way, and neither were his grandchildren. He, however, thought the resolution had the potential to be divisive and said this was a time for the country to come together. He, too, thought the staff was already making strides toward identifying and eliminating institutional barriers to equity.
Pressley also wanted to heartily commend Whitesides for reaching across the aisle and giving the Republicans on the board a heads up about the resolution. Recently, the three Republicans have been complaining about how the four Democrats discuss and decide and then blindside their Republican counterparts at meetings.
Commissioner Joe Belcher agreed it was time for action, not more paper. He said the commissioners had to move beyond emotion, discussion, and strategizing and start the “investment.” Like his peers, he wanted equality of opportunity for all in education, economic mobility, and homeownership and equity. He said his job description, among other things, empowered him to allocate public funds; so, what he would support, after going through the proper channels, would be an agenda item allocating $500,000 to help African-American businesses reopen, $250,000 for homebuyer education, and $250,000 for down payment assistance for people now residing in public housing.
Belcher said he recognized the hurt many members of the community feel and then spoke of John Newton. Newton, he said, “was a horrific slave trader until God changed his heart in the middle of the sea.” Belcher said it only made sense to help people of color, or anybody who was suffering because a rising tide lifts all ships. He concluded, “I do pray for hearts and eyes to change, but I won’t support this resolution.” The vote was 4-3.
During public comment, the commissioners acknowledged receipt of over 40 themes and variations on a form letter demanding defunding the police, etc. Buncombe County resident Don Yelton was one of a couple to speak in opposition to the way the commissioners are going about ensuring equality. He said the Democrats have been the party in power for almost all of Buncombe County history, overseeing the laws and practices that harmed people of color. He considered the resolution merely an attempt to “buy black votes and buy alternative lifestyle votes.”