Posted on November 6, 2023

As Asheville Pursues Reparations, North Carolina Seeks Silence

Brentin Mock, Bloomberg, November 1, 2023

Roughly 200 people gathered at the University of North Carolina at Asheville recently to discuss the city’s commitment to local reparations. It was the first summit of its kind and an important step in Asheville’s plan to compensate Black residents for decades of structural racism.

As the city ramps up its reparations effort, the state of North Carolina is moving in a reverse direction, with state legislation seeking to limit discussions about racism, especially in government and academia.

A new law passed in June forbids any employee of the North Carolina state government – which includes the University of North Carolina system – from discussing racism-related concepts, particularly in hiring practices.

In March, lawmakers in North Carolina’s state House of Representatives also passed a bill that prohibits public schools teachers from “promoting” ideas related to exposing systemic and historical racism. For example, teachers would be restrained from teaching concepts that say, “An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past” that harmed another race. The bill hasn’t yet been passed by the senate.


“Diversity, equity, inclusion and justice is under attack,” said professor Tiece Ruffin, the director of UNC at Asheville’s Africana Studies department who helped host this year’s summit. “We’ve continued to center reparations for African Americans in the city. {snip}”


Asheville voted in July 2020 to create a reparations commission that would investigate how the city damaged individual Black families and entire Black neighborhoods through racist policies. This has involved more than two years of unearthing historical documents, property deeds, financial records, tax sheets and city ordinances.

The new and proposed laws haven’t yet stopped any of this reparations work at the city level, said Dwight Mullen, chair of the city’s reparations commission. The commission members mostly have just ignored talk from conservatives about clamping down on how racism is taught and addressed in the state, said Mullen.

But both Mullen and Ruffin are already seeing the effect of the proposals on other areas of their work. Ruffin said state lawmakers have begun querying the university about how much funding is spent on DEI initiatives and about what kinds of questions the Africana Studies department asks when hiring professors and other staff.

Mullen has become embroiled in a federal civil rights complaint filed against Asheville PEAK Academy. The organization Western North Carolina Citizens for Equality named Mullen, a PEAK Academy founder and board member, in the complaint, which claims that the K-3 charter school employs “racial quotas” that exclude teachers and students of certain races.


The reparations commission is focusing on five areas for investigation: criminal justice, economic development, housing, education and health. Some of the recommendations they are currently considering include funding for families impoverished by having members incarcerated; grants for Black-owned businesses; better salaries for Black teachers; payments to Black families that would be used exclusively for mental health support; and “reparations land” — properties and lots acquired exclusively for Black homeowners and entrepreneurs.

There are also non-compensation recommendations that focus more on policy, such as calls to eliminate racial disparities in the court system, to recruit and retain more Black teachers, and for the creation of a Black Economic Development Center to train Black business owners.

As a local government in a conservative state, the city may ultimately be constrained by which of these recommendations it can institute and how. In an email sent three days before the summit, the reparations commission cautioned that “local governments cannot be the complete solution to the problems faced by the Black community” due, in part, to legal limitations.