Virgil Smith

Asheville City Council members are to be commended for the historic and courageous move they took July 14 when they approved a resolution that calls for reparations for Black Ashevillians and issued an apology for the city’s role in the enslavement of Black people.

The resolution recognizes the city’s participation in policies that stripped Black residents of the opportunity to build generational wealth, relegated them to second class status in every area of their lives, including health care and education, and caused them to fear law enforcement, the very institution that should have protected their safety.

The city council is looking to the future by directing the city manager to come back in a year with short, medium and long-term recommendations to address the creation of generational wealth and opportunity for the Black community.

There is no question that many White Americans benefited from slavery and have enjoyed a systemic advantage that includes wealth passed on from generation to generation.

This resolution, approved unanimously, represents bold action by these locally elected officials during these times of civil unrest and crisis resulting from COVID-19.

Some people may think reparations means a check is on the way in the manner of the legendary and unfulfilled promise of “40 acres and a mule.” The Asheville City Council resolution does not mandate direct payments. Instead it will make investments in areas where Black residents face disparities.

Reparations for slavery is a political justice concept that the descendants of slaves should be compensated for the bondage endured by their ancestors. It should be noted that slave owners received compensated emancipation, the money that some governments paid some slave owners when slavery was abolished, as compensation for the financial loss of free labor. It is too late to compensate the ancestors who suffered under slavery. It is not too late to give their descendants a fair and equitable opportunity to achieve the American dream, without being handicapped before entering the game, by breaking down the walls of institutional racism. The actions of the Asheville City Council seem intended to give an advantage to those who have been disadvantaged for generations.

Reparations are not new to America. Americans have received compensation for injustices a number of times in the past. The Indian Claims Commission compensated tribes for land seized by the United States. Japanese-Americans interned during World War II received close to $1.6 billion paid to 82,219 eligible claimants. In other examples, reparations were paid to survivors of police abuse in Chicago, victims of forced sterilization, and Black residents of a Florida town that was burned by a murderous White mob.

North Carolina became the first state in America to pass a law compensating survivors of the eugenics program that sterilized poor and disabled African Americans. The fund to compensate the victims was close to $10 million, according to Adeel Hassan, a reporter and editor on the National Desk at the New York Times.

There have been many attempts to change historical symbols of racism. They are nice gestures, but they don’t go far enough toward addressing the economic and educational issues of descendants of slaves. What impact does removing Aunt Jemima from the cover of pancake boxes after 131 years and other symbolic gestures have on the lives of Black Americans?

So what needs to happen? As the Asheville Resolution states, “Black People have been denied housing through racist practices in the private realty market, including redlining, blockbusting, denial of mortgages and gentrification, discriminatory wages paid in every sector” and the list of injustices goes on.

The Asheville City Council resolution is a vigorous attempt to undo structural and systemic racism, which has been in place in many forms since the days of slavery. As they have been reminded time and again, including the tragic change of policy during Reconstruction and the economic disparities of the 20th Century, Black Americans have been excluded since birth from equal opportunity in America.

Black families have long told their children that they cannot be average because they must be twice as good as White people. Silent and subtle racism has been a part of the nation for years. Blacks are not the only ones who have suffered; immigrants from every continent have faced racism, most recently by the Muslim ban and the anti-immigration policy for Mexico and Latin American nations. Racism is and has been a part of the fabric of America, but we enable it when we see the systemic unfairness and disparate treatment and fail to call it out.

The Asheville City Council has risen above others and displayed courage to address structural racism facing Black Americans in their city. Their action challenges North Carolina and the federal government to join them in addressing the systematic discrimination against Black Americans. History will reflect favorably on their courage and action.

Virgil L. Smith formerly served as president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times.