Soon after Rodrigo Dorfman hit send, all hell broke loose. 

The documentary filmmaker, whose family fled Chile in exile when he was six, says the three-page email, which he fired off to fellow Latinx activists on August 30, was never meant for public consumption. But it didn’t take long for it to make its way through Durham’s political circles, bringing to the surface tensions between some black and brown progressives ahead of next month’s city elections. 

Dorfman’s email followed a heated exchange a week earlier, at the August 21 People’s Alliance PAC meeting. There, more than two hundred PA members voted to endorse the three incumbents running for at-large city council seats: Charlie Reece, Jillian Johnson, and Javiera Caballero. 

Before the vote, Nia Wilson, an African American activist who runs the nonprofit SpiritHouse, urged the influential PA to back rapper and businessman Joshua Gunn, a fourth-generation Durham native “who comes from a legacy of slavery and black people whose blood is in this soil,” as Wilson put it. 

Dorfman was worried that if the PA backed Gunn, it wouldn’t support Caballero, the first Latinx person to serve on the council. (Caballero, appointed in January 2018 to fill the remainder of Steve Schewel’s term after Schewel became mayor, is seeking election for the first time.) But he took specific umbrage to Wilson’s words. 

According to Wilson, he told the audience: “Brown people built Durham, and [my] blood is in this soil, too.” Dorfman recalls it differently. He says his actual words were, “Brown people helped to build Durham, too.” 

Either way, the meeting devolved. Another black woman, whom Wilson identifies as Michelle Cotton Laws, a past president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro chapter of the NAACP, confronted Dorfman, warning him not to “lift up your candidates on the backs of our ancestors,” Wilson says. (The INDY was unable to reach Cotton Laws.) A sheriff’s deputy stepped in to separate them. 

On August 28, Nuestra Gente de PA, an action team that formed last year with the help of the PA’s PAC, asked Dorfman to apologize. He says he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to apologize for. Instead, he dispatched the email to Nuestra Gente’s listserv, which has about twenty members. 

“A public apology,” he wrote, “would be to apologize to a dangerous, toxic nationalist/nativist argument.”

In an extended rant, Dorfman lashed out at what he described as shortcomings in Durham’s black political community. He charged black activists with being anti-LGBTQ. He called Gunn a “black capitalist beholden to the chamber of commerce and the interests of big-time developers.” He described Pierce Freelon, who ran for mayor in 2017 and is currently seeking a state senate seat, as “an artist, with no clear useful ideology” for the “black capitalist community.” 

He said that council member DeDreanna Freeman, who did not support Caballero’s appointment in 2018, is “failing miserably at being a positive force for the council.” He accused supporters of another black council candidate, Jackie Wagstaff, of being “homophobic,” “anti-immigrant,” and he said they were incapable of showing “nuance” or “compassion, just anger and hate.” He also questioned their intelligence based on “the way they spoke.”

He argued that African American activists were targeting Caballero and accused “elements” of the black community of being against “any” Latinx representation on the council. He said that, because African Americans comprise four of the council’s seven seats, they have “a greater representational percentage” than their overall population in Durham. (About 40 percent of the city’s population is black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.) Dorfman also questioned black activists’ willingness “to make allegiances, build bridges, come together, and learn how to govern.”

Most provocatively, he accused Wilson of appropriating the “blood and soil” rhetoric of white nationalists. 

“Is anyone reading this willing to step up and defend Mama Nia, who used a white nationalist slogan to argue that we should vote for Joshua because his ancestors have blood in the soil?” Dorfman wrote. 

He added: “So why did Mama Nia read a manifesto that comes straight from the White Nationalist and Fascist playbook? Blood and Soil. Now, I AM NOT SAYING that Mama Nia is a fascist, right? I am merely pointing out that when Mama Nia talked about the Blood and Soil and the ancestors, she should have known better. That’s what they were chanting in Charlottesville!”

The email didn’t stay confined to Nuestra Gente’s listserv long. When it leaked, it sparked anger among black political leaders. 

“I am totally unconvinced that [Dorfman] does not understand the difference between the chant of ‘blood and soil’ by white nationalists and the lament of ‘blood in soil’ by the descendants of lynching victims,” council member Mark-Anthony Middleton told the INDY in an email. Middleton is not up for re-election but is supporting Gunn. “The allusion to the ‘way we speak’ and being incapable of ‘nuance’ are stinging darts that black folk are intimately familiar with and fully understand what is being conveyed.”

“His attempt to pit two marginalized communities against one another as a part of a political agenda is disgusting,” Gunn says. (Dorfman told the INDY he regrets what he said about Gunn: “I shouldn’t have said that, because who he is, it’s because of his own ingenuity and hard work.”)

On September 15, Reece—a friend of both Dorfman and Wilson—posted a lengthy response on Facebook, saying that Dorfman had “unfairly conflate[d] language evoking the generational sacrifices of black Durhamites (‘blood in the soil’) with the language used by white supremacists to demonize and terrorize immigrants (‘blood and soil’). … I absolutely do not believe her words were xenophobic or nationalist; rather, in my view, Nia was expressing the appeal of a candidate with strong historical family connections to this special place.”

Reece continued: “The reason that this part of the email is so toxic is that it explicitly pits our black and brown communities against each other during this election in a completely unnecessary way. … I am sorry my friend Rodrigo Dorfman wrote this email. I am sorry because it caused my friend Nia Wilson pain, because it drew other friends needlessly into this situation and recklessly caused them pain, and because it contains sentiments that are deeply problematic and anti-black. And I’m sorry because this email created the kind of controversy that does little to help us better understand each other.”

Three days later, on September 18, Nuestra Gente voted to eject Dorfman from the group. 

“We want to be clear that Nuestra Gente explicitly rejects the anti-black sentiments and falsehoods expressed in the endorsement meeting and in his email to our group,” Nuestra Gente officials wrote on the PA’s Facebook page. “What Rodrigo Dorfman said in his statement at the People’s Alliance meeting and what he wrote in his email does not reflect any official position of Nuestra Gente.”

Wilson says her differences with Dorfman—whom she thought of as a “dear, dear friend” before the PA meeting—date to the 2017 election, when she supported Freelon for mayor and then voiced concerns about what she saw as a lack of transparency surrounding Caballero’s appointment to the council. 

Both Freelon and Gunn, she points out, are African American men under forty—another marginalized group. Wilson says that, in backing Gunn, she didn’t intend to go after Caballero but to support candidates whom she believes will best serve the entire community. 

“Black people feel like they are not being heard,” she says. “That’s a problem.”

In an email suggesting that Durham’s black people might be heard too much—and Latinx people not enough, with black people to blame—Dorfman furthered a divide between two marginalized communities that already struggle with language and cultural barriers. And this division furthers systemic white supremacy, Middleton points out, as whites have maintained power by pitting minority groups against one another.   

The struggle for black justice requires African Americans not to alienate to any group of people, Middleton says, “including our Latino brothers and sisters.”

“Unity between Durham’s black and brown communities should be as naturally occurring as breathing,” he says. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at

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