It was early summer in Asheville when Mayor Esther Manheimer stepped to the podium at the Thomas Wolfe auditorium to open the speaker series for the city’s Information and Truth Telling series.
“So, let me just tell you how we got here,” she began.
It had been a long, slow route to this moment. Nearly a year prior—July 14, 2020—the Asheville city council had adopted a resolution to support, in Manheimer’s words, “reparations for Black Asheville, with the intention to repair the harm done by decades of discrimination.”
As Manheimer outlined the aims of the reparations process, “to address disparities and begin the process of creating generational wealth,” she and other panelists touted one person in particular: City Manager Debra Campbell.
“The reason this is being carried out is because of the able leadership of the City Manager Debra Campbell,” said civil rights lawyer James Ferguson II. “Charlotte sent me up here to begin working on getting her back down to Charlotte to do the same thing there.”
But a review of the reparations process by The Assembly suggests the accolades may be premature and misguided.
In the year since the resolution passed unanimously, progress has been elusive; interviews with former colleagues and local activists paint Campbell as a reluctant bureaucrat only acting after months of delay. By contrast, the brash one-term city councilman who had written and pushed through the resolution, Keith Young, was off the city’s council and missing from its accolades.
As progress stalled in Asheville, other cities inspired by Asheville’s initial vote have leapfrogged the city, as places like Providence, Rhode Island, Evanston, Illinois and Charlottesville, Virginia have begun appropriating funds to address racial injustices.
This summer, the cogs slowly began turning. But now, some of the idea’s early champions are concerned the process could skip important steps, moving too fast in a rush to placate critics.
What happened in Asheville shows a hard reality of politics and policy: Winning a vote is only the first step—getting it through government bureaucracy can be just as difficult.
By the time Keith Young was elected to the city council, the Asheville native was on the verge of becoming a perennial losing candidate.
In 2012 and 2014, he launched quixotic primary bids to unseat incumbents on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, taking a shellacking each time. But in 2015, running on an unabashedly progressive platform, Young shocked the political scene by coming in first in a six-way city council race. At 34, he became the youngest member of the city council, the first Black candidate elected to the body in six years and the only Black man elected since the 1990s.
Even after he won his city council seat, Young kept running for more ambitious roles. Less than a year into his term, he tried to get appointed to the County Commission; in 2018, he launched a longshot bid to unseat Rep. Alma Adams from her congressional seat.
But even if he viewed the city council as a pit stop en route to greater things, Young was hardly a placeholder. He pushed for big, attention-grabbing measures that sometimes seemed more symbolic than practical. Long before the words “defund the police” became a common refrain, Young argued to cut the police department budget and establish an oversight board. His push to curtail police search powers was successful a year later. And after the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, he called unsuccessfully for the removal of the town’s confederate monuments.
Young also had his share of notable successes. He pushed through measures to establish the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI), implement a “ban the box” hiring measure for city job applicants, enact a $15 minimum wage for city workers, implement a “race-conscious” contracting policy and the inclusion of millions for affordable housing in the city’s $74 million bond package.
Both self-assured and self-aware, Young acknowledges that his in-your-face-style sometimes rubbed his colleagues the wrong way. During a heated debate about raising the minimum wage, Manheimer declared she was sick of his grandstanding.
“I haven’t necessarily been the most friendly politician but I’ve probably been one of the most effective politicians in my city’s history,” Young told The Assembly. “In a small town where people aren’t used to playing politics, I think I played it pretty well.”
Young’s effectiveness stems from his ability to make the most of a political opportunity. When City Manager Gary Jackson was forced out following the release of a video that showed a white Asheville cop brutally beating a Black resident for jaywalking, Young used the months-long recruitment process to push for a city manager he believed would be an ally in enacting progressive policies.
The city council voted unanimously to chose Campbell, who was retiring after 30 years in Charlotte city government. Selected from a pool of 70 applicants, Asheville’s first Black city manager received a five-year contract and a $220,000 annual salary.
“City Council’s initial intention had been to hold a community Meet and Greet for the finalists,” read the hiring announcement. “However, the anticipated candidate was so well aligned with the input received from the community, City Council and staff that City Council has decided to move forward with the anticipated candidate,” the announcement said.
Her hiring was met with widespread enthusiasm among Black city employees and the activist community. A year later, much of that excitement had been replaced by skepticism.
Yashika Smith joined the Office of Equity and Inclusion two months before Campbell started. “All of us really had high hopes,” Smith told The Assembly. “There were things that should have been taken as red flags but we kind of overlooked them because we thought ‘okay she’s just trying to get a feel for the water’.”
“She had a bunch of us fooled,” said Julia McDowell, president of Just Folks, a non-profit dedicated to keeping Black heritage community events. “She put up a big front that she was for us and was on our side.”
Young was nearing the end of his five-year term when the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests for racial justice and police accountability. Demonstrators flooded Asheville streets and closed down the highways. The city council finally seemed willing to remove its Confederate monuments, but Young wanted more. He believed this was the moment to swing for the political fences.
He and Rob Thomas, head of the Asheville Racial Justice Coalition, began strategizing about how to use political capital from the protests to bring about systemic change for the Black community.
“It was about trying to figure out what meaningful policy can we put forward to fix all the shit that’s happened to us,” Young told The Assembly. “We wanted to put the spotlight on all the disparities in a major way, and get the biggest thing out of it that we can.”
Reparations seemed the only thing big enough for the moment. “The hair stood up on my arms,” he says. “It was about everything that was happening in our city—education, economically, in the criminal justice system.”
Young started crafting what would become Resolution 20-128, supporting community reparations for Black Asheville, and working to get his council colleagues on board. Thomas and the RJC organized to build community support.
“Nineteen days before the vote was when we switched all our messaging in the protests towards reparations because you had thousands and thousands of people showing up,” says Thomas. “We also started a whole lot of community engagement, educating people about the importance of reparations. We rallied community members to email and phone our council members, demanding reparations.”
They made the case that past wrongs have led to present day injustices and inequities.
Redlining and urban renewal projects harmed Black families and communities across the country and Asheville was no exception. Black Asheville remains, but it’s a fraction of what it was.
The grand building on the corner of Eagle and Market Streets houses the Young Men’s Institute (YMI), an educational, recreational, and cultural refuge for African Americans dating back to 1893. Built by the same Black craftsmen who had constructed the Biltmore Estate, the YMI is one of the few remaining edifices of historic Black Asheville.
The latest federal census puts the population of Black residents in Asheville at fewer than 11,000. As the city’s overall population has grown 42 percent since 1980, the Black population has stagnated, falling in relative terms from 21 percent of the city in 1980 to around 11 percent today.
For those who remain, Asheville is a city of stark racial disparities by every indicator. Nearly a quarter of Black people living in Asheville fall below the federal poverty line; Black residents account for 24 percent of the homeless population. Asheville Police Department, one of the largest per-capita departments in the state, also has one of the worst racial disparities in traffic stops and searches. One of the highest funded K-12 systems in the state has created one of the largest gaps in the nation between Black and white student achievement.
In Buncombe County, Black people represent just 6 percent of the population but account for 28 percent of those in county jail. Just 1.9 percent of the county’s physicians are Black, a statistic that trickles down to both dismal healthcare access and outcomes. Between 2014 and 2018, the county’s Black infant death rate was 15.1 per 1,000 versus 3.8 for white babies.
“I’m scared every time I come to Asheville, because the population of Black Asheville is diminishing and I have to look for the Black people,” said Ferguson, who was born and raised in the city. “We are losing part of the population of African Americans who really care about this whole issue of repairing the damage that has been done to our people.”
When the city council convened in July 2020, Young commanded the room with his usual flair. “This is our moment because the future success of my own children and our current and future society depends on the sustained success of the systemic changes we seek,” he thundered. “Hundreds of years of Black blood spilled that basically fills the cup we drink from today.”
When Young drafted the resolution, he made it clear that reparations was the political hill on which he was prepared to die. But when time came for the vote, he found himself in an unusual place—aligned with the mayor and every one of his six council colleagues, all of whom praised his leadership and delivered impassioned speeches in favor of the resolution.
“The first step toward rectifying any societal problem is acknowledging that there is a problem in the first place,” said Councilwoman Sheneika Smith. “[T]his resolution is the first step in that it names that list of historic wrongs that have been perpetrated against the Black community up until this very day.”
“We have a problem here in the city of Asheville,” said Councilman Kapoor. “If you look at the data, the issue there is one of race. I don’t think you can shy away from that because it doesn’t benefit anyone to have a significant equity gap in this city. It holds us back.”
Still, Young said he was stunned by the unanimous 7-0 vote.
The resolution was modest. It acknowledges and seeks redress for the city’s role in advancing systemic racism but instead of direct payments, it calls for investments in areas where Black residents face disparities.
That falls short of what leading scholars define as reparations. “We feel strongly that direct payments must be a major component,” said William Darity, a Duke university professor and author of From Here To Equality: Reparations For Black Americans In The Twenty-First Century, in an NPR interview. “The preponderance of the funds must go to individual recipients. And they must go in such a way that we, in fact, eliminate the racial wealth gap.”
The resolution called for the direct participation of Asheville’s Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) in its implementation and directed the city manager to establish a process to develop recommendations to boost economic mobility and create generational wealth. But soon after the vote, those tasked with its execution began disagreeing in very public ways.
Just six weeks after the resolution passed, OEI director Kimberlee Archie suddenly resigned. “I did not quit the City of Asheville because of frustration. I left because I was not getting the support from the City Manager and the work I was leading was not valued by many in the leadership,” she wrote to The Assembly in an email.
Archie said that she faced hostility from some department heads and a lack of support from Campbell who refused to follow through on equity measures or hold department heads accountable for racist and homophobic actions.
In response, Campbell issued a brief statement: “Under [Archie’s] leadership, the city of Asheville has made significant progress. But we also recognize that culture change is hard, it takes time, and this is not an easy task. I agree that more work needs to be done and we are committed to continuing to grow and to fully incorporate this value into everything that we do.”
According to Yashika Smith, the former OEI employee, Campbell cut the office out of the process by refusing to meet with its members, ignoring their input, and allowing the reparations resolution to stall. “I don’t know if she’s opposed to reparations per se, as much as I don’t think she believes in it,” Smith told The Assembly. “She thinks it’s charity.”
Archie’s resignation prompted Young to call for a review of Campbell and asked the council to move OEI under its authority. “We cannot use equity to check a box and then speak as though we are stressing cultural change when it appears to be just merely window dressing from my vantage point,” he later said at a council meeting.
Campbell has often said there’s no such thing as the department of equity. For some, that translates into not caring about the plight of Black people but Smith says Campbell simply objects to having an equity office. “She kept saying that equity is a value that’s going to be in our culture but first you’ve got to normalize equity and actually make it a value.”
Jennifer Roberts was mayor of Charlotte for two years during Campbell’s tenure as assistant city manager. She finds the criticism towards Campbell unsurprising.
“She never warmed up to me, probably because she thought I was too progressive,” Roberts told The Assembly. “It’s in Debra’s character to always be cautious to this community.”
“There are people who are all about process and bureaucracy,” continued Roberts. “Their attitude is, ‘Let’s not do anything too fast; let’s make sure Raleigh’s not going to get mad at us; let’s make sure that the business community supports it; and let’s not ruffle any feathers.’ It’s a go-along-get-along attitude. It’s a bureaucratic mindset. I think Debra is in that same category.”
The agenda for city council’s first meeting of November 2020 included some real action: a vote to set aside $1 million to facilitate the reparations process the council had approved some four months prior.
But a few days prior, November 3, was also election day and unexpected change was coming. Young lost his reelection bid by just over one thousand votes. Some political observers suggested it was backlash for overreaching on progressive policies but Young believes his criticism of Campbell was his undoing. “I caught a lot of hell from Black community members for that,” he says.
That night, Mayor Manheimer removed the reparations funding discussion and vote from the agenda. “Let me just reassure you that the council remains unanimously committed to the previously passed reparations resolution,” she said at the time. “We need more time, however, to chart a path forward on reparations.”
But by the early months of 2021, the resolution seemed all but forgotten. An Asheville Watchdog headline from February, 2021 read “Reparations, Six Months Later: So Far, Empty Promises.”
Manheimer declined to be interviewed for this article, saying she was unavailable.
I asked a friend in Asheville who is involved in local politics whether the reparations resolution is being allowed to bleed to death.
“I would think so,” she responded. “We talk a good game but we can’t even get the monument removed! Putting cash money in the hands of Black folk or giving them their land back?! … Maybe I’m being too cynical but, at the very least, the wheels of change are moving very slowly.”
Despite its progressive reputation, city leaders have a reputation for being reluctant to take bold steps. Other local governments openly defied the 2015 monument protection law and removed their Confederate memorials. Gov. Roy Cooper ordered three such “monuments to white supremacy” removed from the state Capitol grounds. Asheville delayed.
In June 2020, the council and commissioners voted to create a 12-member task force to determine if the monument to Zebulon Vance should be removed or repurposed. A year later, it still isn’t completely down. The NC Court of Appeals halted its removal after a confederate remembrance organization sued.
Manheimer has acknowledged the slow pace of progress. She said that city officials have been researching and consulting with academic experts about the way forward. “We need guidance, help and time,” the mayor said.
Meanwhile, the forces behind the resolution’s original passage have been largely absent. Only two of the six council members who passed it are still serving: Young lost his council seat and three others members did not seek reelection.
Young told The Assembly he viewed the resolution as the first step in a policy discussion—the foundation for future policy, not just a standalone piece of legislation. To him, it seemed as if the new members either didn’t know what to do or lacked the same commitment to this ideal.
Whatever the case, nothing happened until activists turned up the heat on Campbell.
The Umoja Health, Wellness and Justice Collective held a community meeting on April 30 about the status of the reparations. Campbell attended with several staffers in tow. She started off dry, citing the dictionary definition for reparations and peppering her talk with boilerplate like ‘charting a path forward,’ and ‘action steps.’
Several attendees challenged Campbell about what they perceived as her inaction and foot-dragging, according to a recording of the event listened to by The Assembly. “Why isn’t land and money being set aside right now in the unspecified trust fund or endowment?” asked one attendee, arguing that trust could be set up and accruing interest as the community waits “two to four years for the recommendations to come.”
“We don’t need any more information-sharing,” said another. “We’ve been collecting information for years around education, housing and economic development. Yet, still we’re at a point where we are information-gathering.”
“I don’t want you to think that we’re doing nothing,” Campbell replied. “We’re waiting to do something until the recommendations are made by the commission.”
Young made a surprise appearance and was one of the last to speak. “When you come out to a community to talk about equity, about reparations, restore equity within the city itself. Hire a new equity director,” he said. “Hire all the positions that have been left vacant. The reparations resolution specifically addresses that you support that department. You cannot come out to the community and talk about reparations and equity if you do not restore equity inside the city.”
Campbell pushed back on those characterizations and challenges but within a week, she had moved $1 million into the reparations budget and participated in a podcast where she admitted that, more than 10 months later, there still was no specific plan. “Our goal, first and foremost, is to begin to have a conversation,” she said in announcing the upcoming, three-part listening series.
By this time, OEI was running on fumes. In mid-October 2020, Campbell said the director was “pivotal” and promised to find a replacement quickly. Months later, the position remained empty with Assistant City Manager Richard White serving as interim director. Nia Davis left in January, followed by Paulina Mendez in March. Convinced that Campbell had no plans to restaff or properly fund the office, Yashika Smith announced her resignation on July 9. Two days later, White followed suit. He took a $27,000 paycut to become Carrboro’s town manager.
Again, Campbell said she would announce a new manager in the “next few weeks.” Instead she appointed yet another interim director: Brenda Mills, a close ally of Campbell’s and another long-serving bureaucrat of Asheville city government, would step in.
Campbell did not respond to interview requests. In response to a detailed overview of the criticisms in this piece, a city spokesperson sent a list of actions the city had taken along with a short statement from Campbell that read:
“I understand there are some who feel the process is moving too slow, I also understand there are those who feel the process is moving too fast.
“When we are talking about reparations, it is important to understand there is work happening in two ways. First, there is the intentional effort to repair harm through service delivery and initiatives the City is currently engaged in. Secondly, there is the implementation of the process that is laid out in the reparations resolution adopted by Council.
“I can say with certainty, again, that city staff is committed to addressing harm that was done through decades of systemic racism.”
More than a year after the resolution was passed, the community reparations commission has not been formed and, in a tacit acknowledgment that her team can’t manage the process, Campbell recently asked outside facilitators to bid for the job. Last month, a $365,000 contract was given to a Cary-based consultant to serve as project manager.
Mary Newsom, a longtime editor for The Charlotte Observer and former director of urban policy initiatives for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, had followed Campbell’s decades-long career in Charlotte city government. Newsom says Campbell’s playbook for reparations bears a striking resemblance to the one she used as planning director and assistant city manager in Charlotte to avoid making changes she didn’t support: delay, delay, delay.
“Mayor Anthony Foxx apparently pushed to get the process started for a new zoning ordinance, and that was almost a decade ago—in 2012,” Newsom told The Assembly. “First they had to hire consultants to tell them we really did need a new ordinance, though Debra had told me in 2012 she didn’t think they did. Then they had to hire other consultants.
“By 2014 they were estimating it would take four years. Debra got promoted but was still overseeing this process, and it got so mired in consultants that people lost interest. They didn’t even hire a planning director for four years. I don’t know if Debra was dragging her feet on that, but come on. And guess what? It’s 2021 and they still don’t even have the draft of a new ordinance.”
Some progress has finally started in Asheville. The total allocated to the reparations process has now reached just over $2 million. The Information Sharing and Truth Telling discussion was well-attended and featured some of the leading lights in Black Asheville, all of whom made a compelling case for reparations. But some view the symposium as just more performance art intended to placate a community grown restless by the slow pace.
Young told The Assembly that he was dismayed at the months-long delay but now worries that the process is being rushed simply to quiet the critics.
“Honestly, I think it’s moving too fast,” he says. “You can’t just appoint a commission and listen to a commission without surveying the community. They need to make a concerted effort to survey and talk to every Black resident of the city so we can have real data and information.”
The former council member may be shut out of his hometown’s process, but other municipalities are eager to tap his expertise. He’s worked on national research around reparations implementation and has been fielding requests from around the country to speak and collaborate on reparations.
Most notably, a Tulsa City Council member sought his input on how to construct a formal apology and begin a reparations process for the 1921 massacre of Black Tulsa residents by a white mob. Young spent several months helping them draft the resolution and navigate the political and racial pitfalls. In June, the ruby-red town voted to apologize and make “tangible amends” for the massacre. It, too, was unanimous.
“We’ve normalized these conversations and we’re making these big strides,” says Young. “Good things are possible. We may not be moving at warp speed. In fact, we’re about 400 years late.”
Melba Newsome is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. Her writing has appeared in Scientific American, Chemical & Engineering News, NC Health News, Politico and Newsweek, among others. She recently launched The Coastal Plains Environmental Advocate, a newsletter on environmental justice in Eastern North Carolina.