(Photo: E.M. Ball, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina Asheville)

ASHEVILLE – A new city body could spearhead one of the region’s most ambitious efforts against institutional racism and other forms of discrimination, proponents say.

A proposed human relations commission faced nearly two years of delays and debates over the scope of its power. Now the idea is set for a City Council vote as soon as this month.

If created, the new advisory body would play several roles, including recommending policies to level the playing field for African-Americans and other minorities reeling from fast-paced gentrification, said Dewana Little, a black Asheville native.

Rapid economic changes mean Asheville has the state’s highest median rent for a two-bedroom apartment at $1,180, according to some of the latest housing, economic and demographic data. Median household income in the city is $42,333, and a median black household income is $30,000. African-American unemployment, meanwhile, hovers around 15 percent.

Little chairs the blue ribbon committee appointed by the council to make recommendations on forming a human relations commission. The group is set to present its findings Feb. 13 and a council vote could follow as soon as the same day, advocates say.

If it’s created, one proposal the commission should make would be to tie economic incentives to hiring minorities and people with criminal records, Little said.

"If we incentivize them to put in a rain garden, shouldn’t we incentivize them to hire certain people?"

Dewana Little (Photo: Courtesy of Dewana Little)

The new body would face challenges, such as skepticism from residents who have watched government efforts falter.

One has been a city minority business program which saw the value of municipal contracts awarded to women and minority business owners lose ground, dropping from 6 percent of all city contracts to 3 percent from 2006-2015, the latest year for which the city said numbers were available.

Priscilla Ndiaye Robinson, who is African-American and grew up in Asheville public housing before getting a master’s degree and a career with the defense department, was appointed to the blue ribbon committee. But Ndiaye stepped down, saying she doubts the commission would have the teeth to carry out real changes.

"That group was not going to have the power to do anything," she said. "I felt like it was something just to go through the motions."

The situation

An important job of a human relations commission should be to paint a picture of the current situation, said Patrick Conant, a web developer and anti-racism activist who is white.

Conant has dug into numbers on police traffic stops and homeless arrests and said such data is the way to understand what is happening to different groups of residents.

"Honestly, I think it’s that data analysis that starts the conversation," he said.

Numbers highlighted by Conant and other activists say 21-24 percent of recent police traffic stops involved black motorists, though African-Americans make up about half that percentage of the population. Post-stop searches also disproportionately involved blacks, though contraband was more often found on whites.

Other numbers coming from the census show a 12 percent decline in the African-American population from 12,129 to 10,675, during 2000-15, the same period when the overall city population swelled 20 percent, from 72,606 to 86,789.

In education, 2016 census data shows 15 percent of black people 25 or older had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 51 percent of white city residents. That same year, African-American residents had an unemployment rate three times worse than whites: 15 percent compared to 5 percent.

Patrick Conant, a member of Code for Asheville, during a Public Safety Committee meeting.

(Photo: Beth Walton/bwalton@citizen-times.com)

A widely cited source is the State of Black Asheville, a student project overseen by UNC Asheville political science professor Dwight Mullen, who is also a blue ribbon committee member.

The college project showed a stark divide in housing, health care and other areas:

– The difference in median income between white and black households was more than $12,000 in 2010.

– The homeownership rate for black families was 37 percent in 2012 compared to 52 percent for whites.

– African-American women were three times as likely to deliver a stillborn fetus in 2012 compared to white women.

A 1969 photo shows a former segregated bathroom at Pack Square.
Past efforts

City and county government has responded to disparities with different initiatives, such as one meant to boost minority business ownership and a police department recruiting effort to increase the number of African-American officers. But both initiatives have struggled.

In the 10-year period from 2006-15, city payments to construction and other types of private contractors more than doubled, from $30 million to $66 million.

But minority- and women-owned businesses saw their share of the pie drop, from $1.8 million or 6 percent in 2005 to 5 percent or $2.5 million in 2010 to 3 percent or $1.8 million in 2015.

Brenda Mills, the city staff member who had been in charge of the program to educate and encourage business owners to apply for the contracts, said there were no new numbers after 2015.

The 2008 recession had "a strong affect on small, minority, women and local businesses," Mills said.

In police recruiting, starting in 1998 black officers made up 10 percent of the force, while African-Americans were 20 percent of the population.

By January of this year, 8 percent of officers were African-American, while the overall black population was 12 percent, according to census data and numbers provided by police to the Citizen Times.

Recruiters said they have gone to traditionally black colleges to try to bring in officers, but often found that Asheville had less of a cultural draw for graduates.

A local human relations commission had been formed in the 1950s but dissolved two years ago.

In its earlier days, the Asheville Buncombe Community Relations Council helped guide school desegregation and enforce fair housing rules. The roles it played in its final years are now contracted out through nonprofits, Buncombe County officials said.

New push

Starting in 2016 city government started an ambitious new push to counter what council members called a legacy of institutional racism.

A $320,000 disparity study is scheduled to be finished by June, and could reshape the minority business program, officials said.

A new equity manager position would "establish the use of an equity lens in all city programs and policies," a city release said upon the July hiring of Kimberlee Archie for the position. The one-person department has a $136,000 budget that includes Archie’s salary.

"Initial areas of focus will include hiring and human resource management, purchasing, public engagement, sustainability, public safety and community and economic development," the release said.

Blue ribbon committee members are proposing to expand the equity department to four employees with an estimated $300,000 budget.

A total of $250,000 in city dollars has also gone to the Buncombe Community Fund, a lending program for businesses unable to qualify for traditional loans and $819,000 over the last five years to Green Opportunities, a nonprofit job trainer that helps people with criminal records and others facing "systemic barriers to employment."

What’s a human relations commission?

Human relations commissions in North Carolina grew out of Civil Rights Era "good neighbors councils" whose black and white members went into troubled areas to help resolve racial conflicts.

There are now 22 local commissions in the state in places such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greenville, Winston-Salem and Reidsville, according to state records.

With its 12 percent African-American population, Asheville would be one of the most racially homogeneous sites for a commission. Fayetteville has a 42 percent black population. Greensboro is 41 percent African-American.

Commissions’ roles vary greatly, depending on locale. Some focus on diversity celebrations and education while others enforce housing discrimination rules. Greensboro, through special state legislation, can review police conduct.

"One of the main things they do is educate the public," said Gene Troy, a state government specialist on the committees. That can mean being a clearinghouse for information on services such as mediation assistance or legal advice.

Successes, failures

Commissions also serve as "crisis interveners," Troy said. When an incident sparks serious concerns, commissions can be sounding boards or help provide resolution.

That happened in Charlotte after the 2016 shooting of black resident Keith Scott by a police officer who was also African-American. Protests and civil unrest followed. The city’s community relations committee worked to reduce violence and destruction, Troy said.

"A lot of people may not know that behind the scenes there was the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee."

In other situations, commissions have been limited by lack of political will or power.

The Rogers-Eubanks community, an unincorporated Orange County community with a large black population, agreed in 1972 to let the county and nearby Chapel Hill open a landfill in the neighborhood. In exchange, the two local governments signed an agreement to provide water lines, sewer lines, paved roads, sidewalks and a community center on the site of the landfill when it closed.

Decades later the infrastructure had failed to arrive. It took residents pushing through a variety of channels to eventually get paving, the center and water lines. Sewer lines are now being explored. There are no sidewalks.

Chapel Hill’s human relations commission played no real role in the process, said Howard Lee, the town’s first black mayor who brokered the deal and expressed frustration at the lack of follow-through after he left office.

"The Chapel Hill human relations council probably could have stayed on top of the process and raised red flags periodically to keep the pressure on," Lee said.

The Orange County Human Relations Commission did get involved, said Rogers-Eubanks resident the Rev. Robert Campbell. The commission, which was formed in the 1980s, listened to and advised residents, Campbell said. It also raised concerns about illegal dumping around the landfill and helped organize a county-funded cleanup.

But the body was limited by its relationship with county-elected officials, Campbell said.

"Our agency didn’t have the authority. They were only able to recommend," he said. "If you’re going to have a human relations commission they need to have some kind of clout."

But North Carolina state law limits what kind of clout commissions can have. Without a specific law passed by state legislators, they have no power over police or city employees.

Most have by-laws saying they can give policy recommendations to city or county elected bodies. But Troy, the state human relations commission specialist, said he hasn’t seen commissions offer serious policy advice in any regular fashion.

What Asheville’s commission would do

Members of the blue-ribbon group agreed that the commission could serve as a place for people to come in cases of civil unrest — or personal crisis.

That type of place was lacking during recent debates about Confederate monuments, said UNC Asheville history professor and committee member Darin Waters.

In New Orleans, a human relations commission played that role after national debate on the prominence of the monuments.

"That city’s human relations commission was actually holding listening sessions on those issues," Waters said. "I think that to have a place the community is able to come together to have open and frank and honest conversations is always good."

Darin Waters (Photo: Courtesy of Darin Waters)

Asheville’s commission could also hear specific discrimination concerns. But resolving them in many cases should be done by other entities, committee members said. The commission should help people find those resources, pointing them to groups such as Pisgah Legal Services, which advises people on housing law.

An expanded equity department could have an employee who deals with some types of discrimination complaints, said Conant, the web developer and committee member.

"I think this makes sense because if you have 15 citizen volunteers trying to hear these complaints, it could be pretty hard," he said.

Equity staff would provide support to the commission, while the volunteer body would be the public outreach arm of the equity department, he and others said.

In day-to-day operations that could mean the equity staff gathering data, while the commission heard problems and ideas for solutions from residents.

The staff could help the commission write ready-made rules to be voted on by the council, allowing the elected officials to avoid much of the "sausage making," said Conant.

Asheville’s commission should be an exception to others in the state that rarely give policy advice to elected officials, Little said.

"I truly believe Asheville could be a model," the blue-ribbon committee chairwoman said.

Little said one of those polices could be adjusting business incentives to include the hiring of minorities or residents with criminal records. Businesses now sometimes receive property tax breaks or favorable zoning in exchange for hiring a certain number of employees, paying a certain level wage and other factors.

Political debate

Some believe, including former blue-ribbon group member Ndiaye, that the commission would need more authority.

The one-time public housing resident turned defense department careerist said she’s considered moving to Charlotte where she said the city is more responsive to equity issues.

"If you look at Charlotte, I know it’s a whole lot bigger, but they are making it so people can have affordable housing, so they can own their own businesses."

Councilman Keith Young, one of two African-Americans on Asheville’s elected body, was the primary proponent of a commission. Nearly two years ago he proposed a body with broad powers.

In a draft ordinance Young said he sent to fellow council members, the proposed commission would have quasi-judicial powers and be able to "adjudicate" discrimination complaints.

Keith Young (Photo: File photo)

The body would have also been able to recommend the release of police body camera footage, something controlled now by police and the courts.

Investigating police use-of-force incidents would have fallen under its purview.

But fears of entering a legal battle with the General Assembly quashed the idea of a more powerful commission, Young said. The Republican-controlled state legislature is already at odds with Asheville over an array of issues and took one fight over Asheville’s water system to the state’s highest court.

Blue ribbon members wanted to move ahead with a commission that could be implemented right away and not be tied up in court, Conant said.

Left in place would be the Citizens/Police Advisory Committee, a body that became the platform for residents expressing dismay and anger after national and local deadly police shootings of citizens.

While CPAC was criticized for its lack of influence with police, it should continue temporarily as the body that hears resident concerns and makes recommendations to law enforcement officials, said Cliff Joslin, a member of CPAC and the blue ribbon committee.

"I think CPAC will continue to exist until such time as the human relations commission gets established and is in a position to take on additional responsibilities," Joslin said.

Also left in place will be the Civil Service Board, created by a 1953 state law that gives it the power to overturn city management hiring, firing and other employee decisions.

Young said he supported the recommendations expected from the blue-ribbon group. But the councilman suggested he might try to expand the commission’s authority in the future.

"I think they are on the right track for smart beginnings. And we can build on it," he said.

While the commission will face limits and a distrust over past efforts, committee members such as Waters say they see "opportunity."

Waters, who grew up in Asheville but lived outside Western North Carolina for decades, before coming to teach at UNCA, said he sees a will to change in the city "maybe more than in other places."

"I think there is a spirit that has created this deep desire to make the city what it wants to be, a very inclusive place."

Much, though, he said, will depend on "long-term" trust and commitment. That would come both from elected officials and some of Asheville’s most marginalized residents.

"In some ways, the people who have been isolated from that economic mainstream need to be able to participate in finding the answers."

Household Income

The median North Carolina household income is $46,450

The median Asheville household income is $42,333

The median black household income in Asheville is $30,000

Employment

African-Americans owned 1.7% of businesses in Buncombe County, or 517 of 29,566 total firms.

In 2010, the median income for black women in Asheville was $14,843 and 39 percent of black women live below the poverty line. Sixty-one percent, or 2,264 single black mothers, live below the poverty line in Asheville

Sources: STATE OF BLACK ASHEVILLE

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