J Hackett, the former executive director of the nonprofit Green Opportunities and now the pastor of New Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, has confronted the legacy and ongoing reality of systemic racism in Asheville for over 20 years. He sits on the community engagement committee of Buncombe County’s Safety and Justice Challenge, an initiative to reduce the county’s jail population. The two-year, $1.75 million effort is funded by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Hackett spoke with Xpress on June 2 about his experiences as a black community leader during the coronavirus pandemic and, now, the protests and grief experienced locally in response to George Floyd’s death on May 25 at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. His remarks below have been edited for length and clarity.
COVID-19 has shaken our entire world, but in the black and brown communities, we feel the presence of this pandemic in a disproportionate way. The science already says that people are disproportionately affected. The reality on the streets is that people are having to address fears all over again.
In one conversation, we found that residents in housing authority [neighborhoods] were going outside and congregating. It was not within the protocols that were set. And one community member said, “We finally have the chance to be at home. We live so close together, we’re like family. We’re not mixing with strangers, we’re mixing with what we consider our nuclear family.”
In black and brown communities, we find solidarity in celebrations, in congregating with each other and in playing together — no different than any other family.
And now, George Floyd.
After we figured out how to support each other, how to bridge gaps in resources, how to take care of each other and observe physical distancing, then this thing happens. This white cop murders a black man, and it hits home so much because — and I can only speak for me and my experience — in our communities, we know that the majority of our black men are court-involved.
On boards like the Buncombe County Safety and Justice Challenge, we’re working on systems-level change. We’re applying for national grants and are part of national movements, but while we’re doing this, something else comes. It’s like we’re trying to seal one crack, and another crack opens up.
When does it end? Why is being black such a bad thing? We understand that we’re in a broken system. Asheville is a beautiful place; we have all the pieces, and we’re trying to connect the dots. And while we’re connecting the dots and this happened, it just exposes a cancer in our society. And it’s sad and it’s scary and we cry about it and we fuss about it and we talk about it and we march about it.
George Floyd, it pulls out years of trying — and it’s not working. And for those of us that are on the front line, we are wondering: When we go to these meetings, are people even listening? When we set up these programs, are they even working?
I’m part of a group of black male leaders that are trying to create economic reform for our young people. But as we’re doing that and we’re preparing people to study, be yourself, be professional, look right, sound right, dress right, talk right, etc., we have to wonder: Those are things that we can control, but what about the stuff we cannot control?
George Floyd, he was compliant. He was doing what he was asked to do. And that still wasn’t enough?
I was raised by a single mom, and part of my upbringing was about how the society sees you as a black man. We have a whole different set of rules on how we’re supposed to interact. How to, when to, why to express our blackness — and when we’re supposed to conceal it.
I’m a parent to a black son, and I have to talk to him about how he’s perceived. That doesn’t feel good, to have to just tell him: This is how the world is.
I was reminded on Sunday of Emmett Till. Maybe the brutality was not exactly the same, but for years and years and years, black people have been being killed at the hands of white people, and we say it’s illegal, but so often the officers don’t even get charged. We have, even in our community, Johnnie Rush, who was beaten. Thank God he wasn’t killed. But who’s to say it couldn’t happen in Asheville?
These things create tension. On one side of that tension is solidarity. Black and brown people, our communities, our allies, are coming together to support each other. On the other side, there is the very real fear.
We appreciate the white allies that come and walk with us and use their privilege to say, “Do not do this to our neighbors.” That feels good. And we know that, if the community is going to change, it requires everybody.
But we need that to translate into a system change: What is Buncombe County going to do in response? What are our significant senior leaders going to do in response? What’s going to happen in response to this?
Do not just let us march and nothing happens. What are you willing to do? What resources are going to be reallocated?
Policing is how our black people enter into the system. We would like for police to look at us differently. With the Safety and Justice Challenge Grant, we have been challenging some of the reasons that people are getting citations and tickets.
We do have the right pieces, but we have to translate it. And there are a few power brokers in the city and county that are just holding the keys and keeping the door closed. It’s only a few, and we’re advocating for that to change.
It’s a vicious cycle. Sadly, we’ve lived it all of our lives. And then this George Floyd thing happens, and it’s like it throws us back in time.
It’s trauma, and not just for people of color. It’s also the trauma that’s experienced by white people. As they experience their privilege and they see people that they care about, they realize: I don’t live that same life, but I care. There’s a way to address it together.
This article is part of COVID Conversations, a series of short features based on interviews with members of our community during the coronavirus pandemic in Western North Carolina. If you or someone you know has a unique story you think should be featured in a future issue of Xpress, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.