Carrboro resident Betty Curry began paying attention to local racial equity issues when she saw the way her grandsons were treated in Chapel Hill–Carrboro City Schools. 

Curry, a mother of three and grandmother of nine, says Black students are given far more suspensions and are scrutinized more by school resource officers. Seeing this through the lens of her grandchildren, and learning how it directly contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline narrative, made Curry determined to work toward change. 

“A lot of the school policies are only applied to Black students,” Curry says. “That’s been an ongoing battle in this district on how our children are treated. They don’t say ‘racism’—a lot of people don’t want to accept or admit that race is in everything.”

Recently, Curry has gotten involved with the Orange County Racial Equity Plan—a newly developed, multi-municipality effort intended to unite often well-intentioned but slow-moving local governments to work toward dismantling structural racism and ensuring that potential impacts on marginalized communities are fully considered in every decision.

The initiative, officially known as the “One Orange” Orange County Racial Equity Plan, will see the towns of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough join with Orange County in this effort. The plan is available for viewing on Orange County’s website. Organizers say they hope it will serve as a living document, one that doesn’t just gather dust on the shelf. 

Curry is skeptical, and she’s not alone in this, but she got involved anyway.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners approved staff moving forward to develop a countywide racial equity plan, dubbed One Orange, back in October 2020, with the goal of uncovering and addressing implicit biases in local institutions in order to dismantle racial disparities in the community.

At the forefront of this effort is Annette Moore, the human rights and relations director for Orange County, who has done civil rights work for more than 25 years.

“Race is on everyone’s mind right now,” Moore says. “There’s a tendency to want to hurry the process of getting a racial equity plan in place. [But] people have to understand the reasoning behind the process. The process has to be embedded into the system so that it can become automatic.”

Anita Jones-McNair, the race and equity officer for the Town of Carrboro, echoes this and says she hopes this framework will become embedded in every aspect of local government.

“This is not [something to do] when you get some extra time; this should be embedded in our daily operation,” she says. “[Then] this becomes not even a second thought, it just rises to the surface.”

The plan is broken into five sections—a racial equity assessment tool, a data index, community engagement, training, and evaluation and accountability. It centers around a framework of questions that encourages decision-makers to consider disparities among marginalized groups. 

The questions can be applied to any new or existing policy initiative, program, or budget item, examining the impact with examples, including “What data can you provide on your targeted community?” “Who benefits and who is negatively impacted?” “What are the consequences?” and “Have you addressed the concerns raised by the community members?”

Moore explains the plan is needed to help institutions look at their individual impact on systemic inequities. Ideally, she explains, the housing commission, the fire department, the parks and recreation department, and many others will all take into consideration the racial equity plan in routine decision-making. She says the ultimate goal of racial “equity” is for race to no longer be used to predict life outcomes in the community.

“It’s not enough to declare the factors are the results of racism,” Moore says. “We must be able to show it. The strength of our racial equity plan is data driven; we must have consistent, measurable, accurate, and reliable data.”

Data-driven plan

According to county data, income disparity between Black and white residents is greater in Orange County than in the rest of the state. 

In Orange County, Black residents are more likely to rent, while white residents are more likely to be homeowners. 

The already small Black population in Orange County has declined in recent years. The 1990 population of Orange County was 80 percent white, 16 percent Black, and 3 percent other racial groups. In 2019, Orange County was 70 percent white, 11 percent Black, 9 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent Asian.

Moore and Curry suggest the declining Black population in the county is due to the lack of affordable housing and jobs that provide a living wage.

According to data reported to the FBI, Black people are arrested four times more often in Orange County than white people. 

Systemic racism is also evident in healthcare data.  

In Orange County, the infant mortality rate is four times higher for Black infants. In 2018, there was a rate of 4.4 deaths for white babies and a rate of 22.7 for Black babies per 1,000 county births. The Orange County Black infant mortality rate is nearly double the statewide Black infant mortality rate of 12.2.

Another major inequity concern in the community remains the proficiency gap present in Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill–Carrboro City Schools. 

Data presented at a joint Orange County, OCS, and CHCCS meeting in September showed a drop in proficiency in end-of-year tests for third through eighth graders in CHCCS. In the 2020–21 school year, only 28.2 percent of Black students and only 31 percent of Latinx students were proficient, compared to 76.7 percent of white students. 

According to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s 2019–20 Racial Equity Report Card, Black students were 6.7 times more likely than white students to receive a short-term suspension in the CHCCS district, despite making up only 10.9 percent of the student body population.

Many hoping to fix the gaps in achievement in schools look to in-school solutions, but educators say the issue goes much deeper.

“Achievement gaps are a reflection of the opportunity gaps that exist in society, and schools alone will not be the entities that close these gaps; it will take a whole-of-community approach,” explains Rodney Trice, the chief equity and engagement officer for CHCCS. Trice says the equity departments of both OCS and CHCCS have been working with One Orange and comparing strategies. 

Taking it to the community

An all-encompassing project like this requires community buy-in to work, says Moore.

“We want to bring people along, not shove it in their faces,” Moore says. “We want them to be full partners in this with us.”

Curry says a successful racial equity plan means ensuring fair treatment in public schools. It means actually talking about systemic racism, even if it makes people uncomfortable; securing affordable housing; calling out relatives and friends who make racist remarks; and paying a living wage.

“I keep going because I can,” Curry says. “There was a time where we weren’t allowed in spaces. And a lot of us aren’t in spaces. Because I can be in these spaces, I’m going to be in them, even though I’m frustrated. I’m still going to be there and hope that one day they’ll get it.”

Of the feedback she’s received on the racial equity plan so far, Moore says she was surprised by the lack of hope in the project. Community members, like Curry, seemed supportive but skeptical, and Moore acknowledges that people are hungry for tangible change, not just talk.

“We have to show them; they have to believe that what we’re saying is true for them to open up to the possibilities that this is real, that this can work,” she says. “There’s been a lot of plans, and they have not come to fruition. They’re skeptical. They haven’t dreamed big enough. That’s the surprising thing, they’re not optimistic enough—it hasn’t caught fire in their belly.”

This skepticism is what urges Moore to continue working—and to do so quickly, so people can see the plan in action. 

“Building that trust with the community is us ensuring that [the plan doesn’t sit on the shelf], that they see results going forward,” she continues. “We need to get to work because people need to see us doing something and not just talking about it. If it’s not going in the direction they want it to go, to criticize us. I really want to be criticized. We’re not perfect—we’re government.”

Curry says while the plan seems good, it’s just a plan and that it’s up to white people in positions of power to make space for people of color by listening to their stories and concerns, elevating their voices, and changing policies and laws. 

“The plan is the plan, but it’s the actual work of the humans that’s going to make the plan work,” Curry says. “Some people want to hear it and a lot of people don’t. But I’m not going to stop until my last breath. I’m going to tell the truth no matter who likes it. White America, your ancestors did a lot of stuff. It’s time for them to really face that.” 

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