Reparations is a nonstarter in Congress. Not in this Southern city.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Homeowner Amanuel Lytle stands on his porch in the South French Broad neighborhood of Asheville, North Carolina, on July 29, 2020. He benefited from an urban renewal project in the 1980s that helped mostly white residents to acquire housing in the city.
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Reparations to Black Americans for slavery is an old and fraught national topic. It has been taken up recently by activists seeking racial justice and police reform in cities, including Asheville, North Carolina, which styles itself as a progressive city but has a history of urban renewal that largely excluded Black people from sharing in the wealth created. 

In July, the Asheville City Council passed a reparations ordinance, one of only a handful enacted in the U.S. Among other measures, it pledges new investment in Black homeownership as a way to redress the racial wealth gap. As in other segregated cities, Black children in Asheville are far more likely to grow up in poor neighborhoods. 

Why We Wrote This

Reparations to Black Americans for slavery and centuries of discrimination is a thorny topic in national politics. How cities approach the issue could prove instructive.

Asheville’s ordinance doesn’t provide financial restitution for past discrimination and it’s unclear how much money will be committed. But advocates say it represents a potentially new approach to reparations, one that puts the emphasis on local actions as a building block toward a national effort to tackle structural racial inequities. 

Anthropologist Paul Mullins says Asheville is acknowledging its role in perpetuating injustices and providing a path forward. “And that’s deep-down what reparations are about: How can we have a measure of response to injustice that leads to some sort of racial reconciliation?”

For all the funky exterior of a progressive mountain redoubt, this city has until now often looked the other way when it comes to racial inequity. 

Two months after days of intense racial justice protests, however, a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that had stood for nearly a century is gone. And an obelisk in the honor of Confederate-era Gov. Zeb Vance is now wrapped in black plastic, as the city considers its removal.

But those symbolic changes have been followed by something that could prove more concrete. Last month, the majority-white Asheville City Council unanimously passed a reparations ordinance aimed at righting not just historic injustice against Black Americans, but more recent wrongs against Asheville’s Black population.

Why We Wrote This

Reparations to Black Americans for slavery and centuries of discrimination is a thorny topic in national politics. How cities approach the issue could prove instructive.

In the past 40 years, residents say, urban renewal and discriminatory banking practices dispossessed especially older Black residents from historic Asheville neighborhoods. Today, 60% of public housing residents are Black, even though they only make up 12% of Asheville’s population, reflecting the national trend in which Black children are far more likely than their white peers to grow up in poor neighborhoods. 

“Asheville is a microcosm of the nation right now,” says John Hennon, a retired corporate executive turned pro-Black rights protester. “It’s done talking and it’s now acting.”

The city ordinance isn’t strictly reparations, which involve the direct redistribution of wealth. Its real contribution, though, may be to sharpen the optics for a national rethink of the concept: how laws and practices that were both explicitly and implicitly discriminatory have reinforced yawning gaps around wealth, health, even of hope.

Closing those racial gaps runs up against entrenched opposition. Even white liberals have balked at reforms like building public housing in gentrified neighborhoods. President Donald Trump has touted his save-the-suburbs campaign by undoing federal executive orders intended to add low-income housing in predominantly white middle-class districts.  

“These tensions aren’t going to go away magically if we ignore them, and frankly we’re in a historical moment where the [reparations] conversation is ... more publicly palatable,” says Indiana University anthropologist Paul Mullins, author of “Race and Affluence: An Archaeology of African America and Consumer Culture.”

He frames the Asheville ordinance as a political statement that acknowledges racial injustices around land ownership and dispossession after World War II. Moreover, it “outlines a first step toward some sort of reconciliation. And that’s deep-down what reparations are about: How can we have a measure of response to injustice that leads to some sort of racial reconciliation?”

“Unscramble that egg”

The idea of compensating formerly enslaved Black Americans has been around since before the Declaration of Independence. Even some white Southerners urged the idea as an economic stimulus for the postwar South. More recently, the U.S. has paid reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. 

Still, two-thirds of Americans regularly pan the proposal. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s only Black Republican, has likened reparations to trying to “unscramble that egg.” President Barack Obama in 2016 called the idea impractical.

Polls show most Black Americans agree with the concept of reparations. But even as support has grown in that community in recent months, overall white support has barely budged.

White people opposed to reparations say it would be unfair to force modern-day Americans to underwrite a wealth transfer for injustices they didn’t personally commit. Scholars have estimated that the price tag could be as much as $10 trillion, or nearly half the nation’s annual economic output.

Ruben Dejernette is one of those torn by the concept. The white Asheville homeowner bought a house four years ago in what used to be the city’s Black neighborhood on South French Broad.

“There is no escaping that we have been doing the Black community wrong, but every time I go over it in my head I don’t know what can actually be done to fix it,” says Mr. Dejernette.

Nearly all Democratic presidential candidates, including Joe Biden, have come out in favor of a national commission to study reparations. A House study bill that would do just that has gone nowhere in Congress for 30 years.

Conservative Black commentator Vince Ellison says the Black community would be foolish to expect progressive Democrats to remunerate them for slavery. He calls reparations “a lie.”

“Black people should look at white people who think they’re going to solve my problem and say, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’” says Mr. Ellison, a Virginia-based pastor and author.

“Reparations just make you a slave looking for a master. Reparations is about making them pay, but you’ll never get enough. Forgiveness cannot be earned, and it shouldn’t be expected.”

Building a coalition

In 2014, the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a case for reparations in a widely-read cover story for The Atlantic. “[A]s surely as the creation of the [racial] wealth gap required the cooperation of every aspect of the society, bridging it will require the same,” he wrote.

Yet as the slow walk for the House study bill shows, even studying reparations is “deeply unpopular,” says David Bateman, co-author of “Southern Nation: Congress and White Supremacy After Reconstruction.”

“The question is, how do you actually amass a winning and enduring coalition that can sustain a particular vision? How do you define it and what would it look like? That might be easier done at the local level, though most localities don’t have the fiscal capacity or reach necessary to achieve a meaningful redistributive program.”

In June, the California Assembly voted to create a reparations task force, and in July, Providence, Rhode Island, embarked on a “truth telling and reparations process.” The effort in Rhode Island underscores the extent to which Northern cities also profited from slavery and segregation. 

In November, Evanston, Illinois, by an 8-1 vote, became the first entity to establish a reparations fund through a future recreational marijuana tax. How the money will be dispersed is still not clear.

Advocates for reparations say such efforts may ultimately nourish a broader national reparations bill by laying groundwork for what reparations look and feel like to Americans living in segregated areas, whether in the North or South.

“This is a situation where many different entities – states, cities, religious institutions, industries – are beginning to recognize and realize that each unjustly benefited from the stolen labor during the enslavement era and through continuing laws and practice like gerrymandering, redlining, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration,” says Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney Nkechi Taifa.

“They are looking in their own backyards to rectify some of these abuses they themselves – not personally, but institutionally – were responsible for.”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Black rights activist John Hennon holds a sign next to the Zeb Vance monument in Asheville, North Carolina, on July 29, 2020. In response to racial justice protests, the city wrapped the obelisk, a monument to a Confederate-era governor, in plastic.

Urban renewal in Asheville

Through the 1960s and 1970s, a familiar pattern played out here in Asheville, which has become known as a beer brewing mecca.

Urban renewal brought the promise of a fresh start, and in some ways it laid the groundwork for the tourist destination the city is today. But renewal came at the expense of Black people. The cheapest properties to buy were targeted, with the city clearing out parts of the South French Broad neighborhood where Mr. Dejernette lives. Today, even a small home there can fetch $700,000.

But it wasn’t just white people who benefited from Asheville’s gentrification. Retired paper mill worker Amanuel Lytle, who is Black, bought his newly vacant lot for $1, with a promise that he would build a new house on it.

“A lot of the homes were falling down,” says Mr. Lytle. “The people who lived there didn’t have enough money for upkeep, and the taxes kept going up.”

A white builder agreed to cosign Mr. Lytle’s mortgage so that the bank would pay for the house that now stands there.

Many others, says Mr. Lytle, didn’t have such benefactors. Today, most Black people live in public housing. Rates of Black homeownership in the city have declined as housing values – and white wealth – have soared.

These disparities, rooted in economic and social policy, are now part of the reparations conversation here.

Asheville’s reparations ordinance offers an official apology and vows to create “policy and programs that will establish the creation of generational wealth and address reparations due in the black community.” It also asks the state legislature and federal government to do the same.

That process may involve replacing lost housing stock by using city-owned land and its bonding authority to create new housing that will boost Black wealth, Sheneika Smith, a Black city councilor, has said.

“If a community says we’re going to redevelop the urban core and we’re going to favor descendant communities ... you could dramatically and radically reshape a city that way through modest kinds of policies that don’t cost a ton of money,” says Professor Mullins.

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