Mecklenburg County to spend $2M in reparations-like program

Mecklenburg County to spend $2M in reparations-like program

Left: A bulldozer destroys a part of what was Brooklyn in 1963. (Photo: UNC Charlotte's J. Murrey Atkins Library) Right: A Black Lives Matter Protest in what was once known as Brooklyn, now Second Ward. (Photo: Andy Weber/Axios)

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Mecklenburg County is spending $2 million on a racial equity initiative aimed at making amends for a legacy of policies that hurt Charlotteans of color.

What’s happening: As part of the $2 billion fiscal year budget, County Commissioners recently approved $2 million for what are being called “equity investments,” which could go toward anything from helping families buy homes to grants for small businesses.

Why it matters: The wording may be different, but the equity investments stand to serve as a form of reparations to atone for harmful government practices of the past.

Commissioner Mark Jerrell, who spearheaded the proposal, called the county’s vote “historic” and likened it to the actions taken by officials in Evanston, Ill., which in March became the first city in the U.S. to fund a reparations program.

  • Similarly, last week Asheville approved spending $2.1 million from the sale of public land on reparations.

“I think it sends the signal that … we don’t only want to talk about equity, we want to apply equity in the community and as a board,” Jerrell tells me.

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Now, the county will decide how to spend the money.

  • Big-impact areas the funds could support include education, entrepreneurship, homeownership and health care, according to Jerrell.
  • The county will form a committee to study current and past county policies that have adversely affected people of color, Jerrell says.
  • The committee, which Jerrell hopes to have up-and-running by August, will make recommendations for how to spend the money based on those findings.

The big picture: Policies like redlining and urban renewal, through which Charlotte and cities across the country demolished Black neighborhoods, contributed to the current wealth gap between Black and white residents.

  • Amid a nationwide racial reckoning, local governments have grappled with how to provide restitution for their role in creating inequities. Many activists support reparations in the form of financial compensation to Black Americans.

Photo: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library archive

In Charlotte, civil rights leaders and racial justice advocates have been pushing for what’s known as “restorative justice,” a concept based on the criminal justice system designed to repair the harm caused by a crime.

  • Jerrell does not believe $2 million alone is enough, but he says he hopes to make the investments a recurring item in the budget.

The Rev. Willie Keaton Jr., a member of the racial justice advocacy group Restorative Justice CLT, is cautiously optimistic. He is hoping the county does not pick the same groups that perpetuated the disparities to lead the response.

“We want to make sure that the money and the funding is disbursed to organizations that can truly bring about some form of change,” he says.

He’s also concerned that politics could interfere with the needs of the community.

Between the lines: Jerrell’s proposal originally called for “restorative justice,” but he says it would have been difficult to secure the votes needed using that language. Part of the pushback, he says, stemmed from potential legal hurdles around whether the county can target aid to a specific group of people — in this case, Black residents.

  • In an April email, county attorney Tyrone Wade cautioned commissioners that North Carolina’s constitution stipulates that public dollars should be used broadly for a public purpose.

Black people often have to make language more palatable to make other people comfortable, Jerrell tells me. But he says he made a calculus on what was better for the community.

“Are we better off with $2 million and using the term equity investments, or no money, no votes, no budget and using the term restorative justice?” he says. “I’ll take up the fight on the verbiage another day.”

Rabbi Judy Schindler, director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice, says she wasn’t happy with the name change, but says the outcome of the program is most critical: “Accelerating upward mobility for those who have been impacted is more important to me.”

The bottom line: Charlotte has spent millions over the years in the name of racial equity. But what could make this plan different is that officials aim to directly link the harms of past government policies to how the money is spent.

Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1960s before it was bulldozed for “urban renewal.” Photo: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library archive

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