Residents reflect on local efforts to address systemic racism in 2020

Justice for George Floyd protest
SIGNS OF THE TIME: The Justice for George Floyd protest on May 29 was one of several held in downtown Asheville this year. Photo by Molly Horak

In March, Sasha Mitchell, former chair of the city’s African American Heritage Commission, spoke with me for “Uprooted: Urban Renewal in Asheville,” which examines the city urban renewal projects and the ongoing impact decisions from the 1950s through the 1980s have had on communities of color.

At the time, Mitchell avoided the word “reparations,” concerned the concept might lead some readers to quickly turn the page without ever engaging in the difficult conversation about systemic racism. Instead, she alluded to the idea, suggesting city officials “shift toward acknowledging that government policies targeting our nation’s Black population resulted in losses of wealth and capital that have never been calculated.”

Two months later, in response to the police killing of George Floyd, thousands of local protesters joined the millions who marched in the United States and around the world to demand racial justice. What Mitchell had feared many white Americans would not consider in the winter could not be ignored by the spring.

In response, Asheville City Council made international headlines in July when it unanimously adopted a resolution supporting reparations for the city’s Black community, while also formally apologizing for the city government’s participation in the enslavement of Black people and recognizing inequalities in housing, education, urban development and health care.

Meanwhile, the urban landscape continued to change. Two Confederate monuments came down in the summer, including the Robert E. Lee Dixie Highway, Col. John Connally marker at Pack Square. Shortly thereafter, a group of local artists painted a commissioned “Black Lives Matter” mural on the arc-shaped street adjacent to where the plaque previously stood.

And earlier this month, Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted to remove the Vance Monument, following recommendations from the joint city-county Vance Monument Task Force.

Considering the changes 2020 has wrought, Mitchell now says she is optimistic about the future. Though plans to remove the Vance Monument still lack a timeline or budget, she believes the city and county are headed in the right direction.

More importantly, Mitchell continues, “the city is continuing discussion on how to bring about necessary criminal justice reform, while supporting law enforcement, as well as continuing to consider how they will address reparations.”

“These are both complicated issues,” she says, adding that further solutions can only come about through a deep immersion into the region’s history and a thorough review of available data concerning racial disparities. “I’m hopeful we will see that work continue.”

With 2021 on the horizon, Xpress spoke with several additional community leaders to discuss how residents and local officials responded to this year’s call for racial justice and what actions offer hope moving forward.


What did Asheville get right?

“If I had to pick one, I would have to say our local reparations resolutions. If done properly with the massive community involvement, it could truly be revolutionary.” — Rob Thomas, community liaison, Racial Justice Coalition

“CHOSEN is a group of predominantly black community leaders committed to ensuring every child knows, ‘They are LOVED’ and ‘They are CHOSEN.’ Their goal is to engage and build relationships with children and families of color by providing culturally relevant activities in nurturing environments that build community, foster growth and increase self-esteem. Whether it’s pushing in to support students in Positive Opportunities Develop Success (PODS) with remote learning or brainstorming ways to reduce violence across Buncombe County, CHOSEN members are true advocates committed to supporting children and families of color on the journey from surviving to thriving by actively addressing racial inequities head-on.” — Shaunda Sandford, chair, Asheville City Board of Education

What topics related to racial justice and equity were ignored or underreported in 2020?

“We still have not fully discussed the roots of discrimination from the beginning of enslavement to the creation of the narrative related to white supremacy and the impact of Jim Crow practices to systemic and institutional racism. We are only at the starting point of having open discussions, but we still have individuals that want to deny history and embrace a false narrative.” — Joseph Fox, vice chair, The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville & Buncombe County

“In August, the Buncombe County commissioners approved a resolution declaring racism a public health and safety crisis. This was an important step in identifying that the health inequities that exist right here in our community are a direct result of systemic racism. Yet, there is so much more that needs to be explored and actions that need to be taken in order to address racism as a public health crisis and improve the health outcomes for Black, Indigenous and people of color throughout WNC.” — Jackie Kiger, chief operations officer, Pisgah Legal Services

“I believe the activism following George Floyd’s death showed us that racial equality is a profoundly and broadly held WNC value. Unfortunately, there were politicians that mocked our aspirations, using them to scare and divide us so they didn’t have to address issues like health care and unemployment. Their failure is making life more difficult for so many in WNC.” — Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe

“The relationship between white supremacy, capitalism, and racism as interconnected was missing from the conversation this year, they all depend on the other to exist and have to be torn down together.” — London Newton, UNC Asheville junior and Student Government Association president

“Asheville City Schools spearheaded the expansion of internet infrastructure beyond its current school buildings and into five of Asheville Housing Authority’s family developments. Upon the project’s completion, all 1,039 apartments across the Southside Community, Deaverview Apartments, Hillcrest Apartments, Klondyke Homes and Pisgah View Apartments will have internet access at no cost to residents.” — Shaunda Sandford, chair, Asheville City Board of Education

“I think some of the positive aspects, such as how all races came together to protest and advocate against racism were underreported. Our society put a lot of energy toward producing the changes coming down the pipeline.” — Rob Thomas, community liaison, Racial Justice Coalition

What gives you hope moving forward?

“Citizens are talking to each other about racial injustices now. As difficult as it may be for some, that’s a very good thing. Plus, there appears to be less denial that racial injustices exist in light of some of the disturbing events we have witnessed in 2020.” — Herbert Blake, chief deputy, Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office

“It was powerful to see people of all ages and races showing up and saying, ‘We’re not going to take it anymore.’ Real change can be slow and difficult, but we reached a tipping point this year, and people are not going to allow our leaders to regress. I see much more accountability for policing practices, removing Confederate monuments and focusing on equity. I’m personally challenged to examine my own privilege, beliefs and behaviors. Organizationally, PLS is focusing on equity and examining our practices, both internally and externally.” — Robin Merrell, managing attorney, Pisgah Legal Services

“Buncombe County government began talking. I know it’s simple, but sharing our experiences is how we build our values, and it’s obvious that inclusiveness is important to the new administration.” — Corinne Duncan, director of elections, Buncombe County

“The hope is that we all will embrace the first step of acknowledging and learning about the true history of how people of a darker hue have always been treated, the roots of white supremacy and the impact that system biases have had on every aspect of life before we can start implementing real systemic changes that will lead to equity.” — Joseph Fox, vice chair, The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville & Buncombe County

“Seeing people’s participation in mutual aid networks like Asheville for Justice and Asheville Survival Program gives me hope that we are moving toward a future with decentralized mutual aid instead of charity and the hierarchy that comes with it.” — London Newton, UNC Asheville junior and Student Government Association President

“All of the education that this nation received about institutional, systemic and structural racism gives me hope. We have been speaking for centuries, and now people are finally hearing.” — Rob Thomas, community liaison, Racial Justice Coalition


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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4 thoughts on “Residents reflect on local efforts to address systemic racism in 2020

  1. G Man

    The number of “I cant breath” signs I have seen really signals a major problem with our education system.

    • Irwin M. Fletcher

      The education system is definitely one of many problems in this country. Another issue is some (not all) of the kids themselves — too much time on their cell phones, goofing off with video games, YouTube, “social” media, texting, etc. Speaking of texting, not only can many of them not spell correctly, they’re also too lazy to spell entire words. “I hv 2 go 4 now.” If this is our future, perhaps A.I. and robots wouldn’t be so bad.

  2. Terry Wheeler

    Originally, it was a sad state of affairs to see radical Marxists and Black Liberation Theologists gaining prominence using their twisted facts to influence guilt ridden citizens and offering the same tired old “free stuff”, which never seems to appear!

    We are moving well past sad at this point and entering into an era of enormous racial pushback!

    All Asheville NC Citizen’s have to do is look at Portland and Seattle… people fleeing CA, OR, WA, NY, NJ and realize all the good will your town has accrued is rapidly dissipating!

    Merry Christmas to you all and a Happy New Year and hopefully you will come to your senses soon!

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