For more on reparations, watch “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” on Sunday, August 16 at 10 p.m. ET.
The memories of the wholesale emptying of the predominantly Black middle-class, neighborhood centered around South French Broad Avenue are still seared in Priscilla Ndiaye Robinson’s mind decades later.
As a young teen in the 1970s, she watched her neighbors drag furniture from their homes, placing it on the sidewalk where the belongings would be collected and unbeknownst to them at the time, re-sold. They later learned that the items were sold in antique shops. They were being re-located out of their homes and into new, smaller public housing. It was supposed to be a temporary move. Residents were told they would be able to purchase lots of land to rebuild cheaply, but many were never able to.
Today, Robinson, 59, has a name for what she saw and experienced: urban renewal, policies that many Black Americans refer to by the pejorative, “urban removal.” The loss of community, home ownership and Black-owned businesses still brings her to tears.
“Old friends, childhood friends, everyone scattered. Some left the state, some moved across town. It was a community breakdown,” Robinson said. “The community received a deep gash, deep cut, and it still has not healed.”
Stories like Robinson’s are all part of what prompted the Asheville City Council to do something dramatic earlier this month: unanimously approve a reparations resolution.
While many associate reparations solely with slavery – and in Asheville it pertains to that too – proponents of the reparations resolution want it to be broader. The council’s hope is that they can find a way to directly address the impact of slavery and more recent discriminatory policies on the economic and social well-being of Black residents.
Asheville is not alone. In the wake of George Floyd protests, local officials in cities including Evanston, Illinois, and Providence, Rhode Island, are pushing to address past wrongs through reparations to Black and Native American residents. And they are grappling with the complexities of how it can be accomplished as well as the backlash, largely coming from White residents who see reparations as an un-earned entitlement for historical harms that people receiving them may not have experienced personally.
A policy of discrimination
Tucked away in the deeply conservative Blue Ridge Mountain region, Asheville is a liberal southern city that prides itself on its progressive political leaning. Yet urban renewal, which played out there in the 1950s and 1960s, remains a source of pain for the city’s Black residents and shame for some of its White ones.
For decades, Asheville and other American cities underwent an effort to transform urban spaces – clearing out so-called blighted neighborhoods to renovate or revitalize them. In many cases, the state acquired properties through eminent domain to expand highways.
Asheville was one of the cities that acquired properties for the purpose of building a highway system during urban renewal. But ultimately, the objective was to create space for urban development, and according to scholars, remove Black people from sections of the city so that development could occur.
“Moving Black people away from the core was one of the central goals of urban displacement here,” said Paul R. Mullins, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. “Part of the goal really was to create space for development even though the city didn’t know what would be developed.”
“This is federal policy. This is the law of the land from the 1930s onwards. This was created by the federal government intentionally, consciously and it was reproduced all around the country for a half century,” Mullins added.
The housing policies imposed by the federal government were experienced by many Black Americans alive today as well as their families. They stretched from the 1930s to the 1980s, making it virtually impossible for loans to be granted in Black neighborhoods, perpetuated segregation and displaced entire communities.
One result was a picturesque downtown in the heart of a city that has come to be a tourist destination in the idyllic mountains of Western North Carolina. But Black neighborhoods and communities were devastated.
That reality is what prompted Asheville’s City Council to vote 7-0 to make a commitment to pursuing reparations that went beyond – though did not exclude – cash payments.
“The days of incremental change, I believe, have left us,” said City Councilman Keith Young, who is Black, as he introduced the resolution during this month’s city council meeting. “And in the now we require what I believe to be institutional change to move forward.”
“That is why the creation of generational wealth within our Black community is important, it will sustain families for future generations, and it is the key to the proverbial American dream,” he added.
The elderly in Priscilla Robinson’s neighborhood were moved to high-rise complexes that later became public housing, some were never able to rebuild or reacquire property that they previously owned, she said. Business owners lost their storefronts and with them a potential source of inter-generational wealth.
“Unfortunately, in this present time we’re still enslaved,” Robinson said. “We’re oppressed. We can’t get good paying jobs. We can’t get housing. Community has been broken down. Black-owned businesses are pretty much gone.
“And so, what we’re wanting and what we’re asking for is to take a serious look at what happened and help us to rebuild our Black community through housing and home ownership through jobs, through Black businesses.”
Today, Asheville’s Black residents point to the city’s many public housing complexes, many of which have recently been converted to Section 8 voucher units for low income individuals, as the physical manifestation of the impact of urban renewal. Nearly 60% of the residents in public housing in Asheville are Black, though Black people represent just 12% of the city’s population.
Dealing with housing is now a driving force for the city council as they look toward implementing their reparations resolution.
“My dream is that we’ll go right to those areas and try to figure out how we can actually create housing, or how we can repair and upkeep houses that are already occupied by people of color, but also look at what city assets we have in those areas, we have city-owned land, how can that be given back,” said Councilwoman Sheneika Smith. “During urban renewal, I think the most powerful promise that was broken I think was that people were going to be able to return.”
“So, I think over time that’s always been the [demand] – fulfill the promise that was made then. And if you do have land assets, if you do have other assets where we can convert into housing let’s try to think about what that will look like in response to the reparations call,” she added.
If Asheville were to use land as a core principle for executing all or some of their reparations plan, that would be transformational, said Mullins, the anthropology professor.
“Property is probably one of the most interesting kinds of reparations we could make,” said Mullins. “If we were to open up all this real estate, that would be a really radical and profoundly structural change to American society.”
“Money is fabulous, nevertheless having property is the basis for community – it’s the basis for social networks, for business networks. So it’s a really radical change.”
But none of this is happening without controversy. At the public meeting where the Asheville City Council approved the resolution on reparations unanimously, angry residents, mostly White, called in to complain.
“The reparations document is accusatory, extremitist (sic), militant and divisive,” said Jacqueline Larsen. “If the council feels so strongly about this, take it to the voters!
“City Council represents all of us, not just the Black community,” she added.
“I find this wrong in so many ways and I strongly oppose it,” added another caller who went by Keith. “The Black people aren’t the only race that have been enslaved in America and around the world.”
And in another angry call, a man who gave his name as Eddie conveyed a commonly held argument against reparations voiced largely by White opponents of the idea.
“We want to go on record to say that for 200 years, we are not responsible for what happened 200 years ago,” Eddie said. “My White privilege is I grew up on a farm, I had 11 brothers and sisters, I baled hay, we milked cows, that is my White privilege, so … that doesn’t fly.”
To that, some White proponents of reparations in Asheville say that the reparations proposal is not about guilt or blame being cast on White people. It is about recognizing that for decades, the government institutionalized policies that disadvantaged Black people.
The city itself, according to Councilwoman Julie Mayfield, is a prime example of how White residents have benefited from the racist policies of the past.
“Anybody to some degree who lives downtown and gets the benefit of the extraordinarily high property values, you could argue that they benefit from the fact that neighborhoods of color are no longer right up against downtown,” said Mayfield. “As White people, we wake up every day and benefit from the systems that exist that keep people of color at an economic and educational and health disadvantage and give us a straighter track in the world.
She added: “Our world, in this country, is built for White people.”