Charleston is the “No. 1 city in the World,” according to Travel + Leisure magazine. Yet, we still have not reckoned with our historical ties to slavery and the legacies thereof. On June 9, 2020, Mayor John Tecklenburg and Charleston City Council passed an ordinance to create the Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Conciliation to “review city policies, practices, budget and other matters … related to addressing racism and racial inequities.” Furthermore, the mayor and city council charged the special commission with making “recommendations to the city council on ways to promote racial justice and racial equity in the city.”
The city’s manager for equity, inclusion and racial conciliation, Amber Johnson, solicited expert volunteers from seven sectors to advise the work: housing and mobility, economic empowerment, health disparities and environmental justice, criminal justice, youth and education, history and culture, and internal review. Subcommittees of nearly 50 reputable professionals also volunteered time and effort to advance the goals of the special commission. The subcommittees worked tirelessly for a year to draft recommendations in accordance with the mayor and city council’s charge.
However, on Aug. 17, city council voted not to review the official report of the Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation. A year of hard work and dedication from volunteers was disregarded and dismissed as a result of a toxic mix of ideological, political and personal agendas.
City council’s rejection of the commission’s report directly contradicts its stated commitment to address the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and present-day racially biased public policy, as was expressed in its 2018 apology for slavery. Instead of embracing a spirit of truth and conciliation, city council has censored a healthy discussion of possible solutions to blatant racial justice issues that have plagued our city for centuries.
According to the Avery Research Center’s 2015 report on racial disparities in Charleston County:
- Black people in Charleston County earn 60% of what their white counterparts make.
- 56% of the black population has low or no access to healthy foods.
- 42% of black children under age 18 are living below the poverty line, compared to 11% of white children.
- Despite the racial and ethnic diversity of Charleston, there are 83 officers of color out of 400 sworn police officers, as of 2015.
- In 2014, the Black inmate population in Charleston County jails was 65%, though Black residents make up only 28% of the overall county population. Conversely, that same year, white Charleston County residents were only 32% of inmates and 65% of the overall population.
- Black students in the county graduate high school at a rate of 75% while white students graduate at a rate of 91%. This is the widest disparity between Black and white students in the tri-county. Black students are disproportionately stuck in low-performing, under-resourced schools while facing more out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
- A larger percentage of Black Charlestonians lack health insurance or a regular source of care and are unable to afford health services impacting life expectancy for Charlestonians. Predominantly Black neighborhoods have nearly a 20-year deficit despite suffering from the same causes of death.
- Black neighborhoods in Charleston County are disproportionately exposed to unhealthy environmental conditions and have increasingly higher death rates for most cancers.
If we are indeed ready to move forward as a collective, we must first acknowledge the harm that has been done to Black and Brown people. City council must reconsider its action. It must accept the ordinance to create a permanent Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation and begin deliberation on the recommendations contained in the special commission report. Then, we can authentically and collaboratively reimagine systems that support liberty and justice for all. It is time for the city of Charleston to not just be the No. 1 tourist destination in the world but also the No. 1 city in the world for racial equity, inclusion and justice.
Daron Lee Calhoun
The authors are community members appointed to Charleston’s Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Conciliation.