Charleston will never fully repair the scars of institutionalized white supremacy and slavery, but the city has taken steps in the right direction. Other state and local leaders should take note.
For nearly 200 years, Charleston was complicit in the forced enslavement of Africans that built America’s economy. More enslaved men, women and children landed in Charleston than in any other port on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, according to Charleston library historian Nic Butler. Those years of bondage followed by legalized discrimination against those descended from enslaved Africans have their roots in Charleston.
Today, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow manifests itself in shameful disparities between black and white Americans.
The city of Charleston’s 2018 apology was an essential first step toward acknowledging its role in establishing the framework for American racism and inequity. The creation of a new Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation to consider serious, major structural changes to create a fairer Charleston is an admirable next step.
Asheville, North Carolina, has taken similar measures, but made an intriguing decision to call its initiatives “community reparations for black Asheville.” Yes, unlike many other initiatives, Asheville intentionally called its measures “reparations.” Any discussion around reparations is complicated and nuanced, but at its core, reparations recognize something taken and something owed. Charleston should take note.
“America owes black folks, there’s no question,” lifelong activist Millicent Brown told the City Paper last week. “The question just becomes, what are the ways in which that debt is going to get paid?”
That question — how to reconcile the damage and the debt — now sits squarely before city leaders.
“We can’t apologize and do nothing,” said Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, who co-chairs the new commission with Councilman Jason Sakran.
The responsibilities of the new commission include analysis for racial bias and equity within the city’s bureaucratic infrastructure, procurement and recruiting, monuments and markers, and more.
Regardless of whether Charleston calls its efforts “reparations” or proposals consider cash payments usually associated with reparations, the push for change must come from within the halls of power.
Charleston’s unique role in the propagation of slavery was especially insidious. But the city shares culpability with hundreds of others in the enforcement of Jim Crow laws that have had an even more direct impact on racial wealth disparities that have kept our society segregated.
Charleston isn’t alone in needing to move forward on these issues. Leaders of Charleston’s suburban cities and the metro area’s three counties must also take an active role alongside their colleagues on the peninsula. Black residents of North Charleston, Mount Pleasant and elsewhere feel the same ripples of segregation.
In North Charleston, a police audit for racial bias has come along much too late. In Mount Pleasant, road widening will likely displace residents of the historically black Phillips community to make way for thousands moving to Cainhoy Plantation across the river. Countywide, local leaders seem blind to the fact that affordable housing can help boost our long-term economic future.
Call any of these measures reparations or not. But a debt is owed. And it is time to pay up.