Last month
, members of a task force whose focus is increasing racial equity in Durham called on city leaders to “formally acknowledge and apologize for the city’s historical compliance for redlining, discrimination in housing covenants, urban renewal projects, and the neglect of historically Black cemeteries.”

The report centers on the unkept promises of urban renewal that destroyed thousands of Black-owned homes and hundreds of businesses in the Hayti district with the creation of NC-147.

On July 23, the 17-member Racial Equity Taskforce submitted the visionary, tough-minded 60-page report to Durham City Council. Mindful of the Black Lives Matter signs on front lawns and white residents joining anti-racism protests, the task force offered a challenge to the city and private institutions in the report.

“We need to be not merely anti-racist in thought, but actively and continuously anti-racist in deed,” says the report’s executive summary.

Later, in a summary of the racial wealth gap, the task force urged the city in bold print to “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is.”

Prior to submitting its report, the task force examined data and spoke with elected officials and residents across the city, including citizens in underserved communities. 

The report noted the distrust in communities hit hard by gentrification and encouraged city officials to be more accessible to the city’s Black and Brown citizens, saying “those closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

The city’s first racial equity task force was formed in October of 2018, the brainchild of council member and mayor pro tem Jillian Johnson.

The multi-racial task force is chaired by retired Superior Court Judge Elaine O’Neal, who is now interim dean at the N.C. Central School of Law, and Kaaren Haldeman, an anthropologist, writer, and activist.

The group spent nearly two years studying wealth and the economy, criminal justice, health and environmental justice, education, and public history. The conclusions in each area were blunt.

“Our criminal legal system is working as it was designed: to protect white people by controlling people of color,” the report says.

Likewise, the nation’s housing system was created to maintain private, white-owned land by controlling people of color’s access to land. Blacks, people of color, and poor whites have lacked access to build and sustain wealth.

Meanwhile, the health-care system values the well-being of white bodies at the expense of the bodies of people of color.

Finally, the report indicts an educational system that was “designed to indoctrinate all students with the internalized belief that the white race is superior.”

The task force members note that their assertions may cause discomfort among white residents.

“So be it,” the report states. “Sit with that. If we are to dismantle racism, we must begin to look at how our systems are designed to advantage white people rather than merely focusing on how our systems have failed people of color.”

That said, the task force sounded a cautionary note: “White discomfort is powerful; it can lead white people to disrupt anti-racist work, or to become participants in the work. We are calling on white Durhamites to embrace this discomfort and actively learn from seasoned white anti-racists how to live racially just lives and how to do this work without causing more harm.” 

The task force dismissed “race-neutral” solutions that ultimately perpetuate the privileging of white Americans, noting that for all of the city’s celebration of inclusion, its downtown development plan—including the American Tobacco Campus—“directly resulted in the re-segregation of downtown Durham” and the surrounding areas. The plan “did not apply equity to ensure the growth and success of Black citizens. This is a re-traumatization of the experience of Hayti, and a failure that the city needs to immediately address.”

The report noted that the city, however well-intentioned, has “limited power over many of these issues. State and federal government not only have more power and capacity, but also place limitations on city capacity to remedy long-term institutional inequities.”

The task force also recognized that it “cannot undo such a deeply ingrained system of racial inequity in one fell swoop.” Nor will the work of undoing racial inequity be the work of one city council or one mayor.

The task force promised that “re-imagining, re-aligning and sustaining an equitable infrastructure” will not be a comfortable process, “but it can be a liberating one, especially for white people.”

Using a 1925 Ku Klux Klan march past the White House as a launching point, the task force surmised that substantive change has not come.

“Black Americans are still enslaved, now in what is called prison, and slaves are now called inmates, felons or defendants. In other words, the terms have changed; but the outcomes and inequities have not,” the report says. Black people in Durham still disproportionately live in substandard housing, have less wealth, and are being killed by the police.

The task force offered a sweeping list of recommendations, including the comprehensive collection of data to understand the intersections of race, gender, and disability experiences. The group says the city should create a database of business ownership by race, ethnicity, and gender, and create access to credit available for Black and Latinx business owners.

In the criminal justice sector, the task force recommends a database that tracks police misconduct and a community oversight board, with subpoena powers, to review it. 

Health and environmental recommendations include focusing on gun violence prevention, mapping areas that have been designated as food deserts, and making efforts to improve the air, water, and soil quality in low-income communities.

The task force also recommends increased funding for eviction diversion programs and ramped-up municipal efforts to increase home ownership in historically Black communities.

The group recommends that the school system should track the number of students who are deemed “transient” due to the housing crisis, evaluate language access for non-English-speaking students, and re-evaluate the role of school resource officers. 

The task force says there needs to be a new narrative about the city’s history that includes voices that have been ignored or dismissed, suggesting the building of a history museum that collaborates with storytellers, the N.C. Central Department of History, and local activist groups to share a more comprehensive history of the city.

Citing “the racialized impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the task force recommends that the city and county’s major institutions, including government, banking, and philanthropic industries, “invest and reallocate resources to communities of color in order to build an inclusive economy where we all thrive.”

The report found that while inequities affect people of color most profoundly, they also undermine community life for everyone. It cited numerous studies that show unjust societies as being less safe, healthy, and happy but more fearful. 

The task force said that its report is in solidarity with the tens of thousands of Americans who are in the streets protesting systemic racism, and praised Asheville city leaders who approved reparations for its Black citizens last month.

At one point the report even struck a poetic sensibility that recalled the best of American activism: “It is time to recognize the stagnation of the poisoned water we all swim in and deal with the reality of the bloodshed that taints the sea.”


Follow Durham Reporter Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.