Greensboro residents, largely white, black and Latino, and representing a fairly wide range of incomes, have filled the pews at Congregational United Church of Christ for a series of teach-ins about systemic racism since June, only five days after the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.
Prompted by a tense community meeting at Bennett College in the wake of the appointment of police Chief Wayne Scott in the spring, Mayor Nancy Vaughan and the Rev. Nelson Johnson began meeting every Monday morning. Out of that awkward yet earnest relationship grew the Community-City Working Group, which is hosting the monthly Doing Our Work teach-ins.
In this turbulent year of increasingly frayed race relations, with unrest in Baltimore in April after the death in custody of Freddie Gray just one of several tension points across the nation, Greensboro of all places has seen a thoughtful and deliberate dialogue about racism. The group spearheaded by the mayor and the Rev. Johnson, including among others Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen and International Civil Rights Center & Museum Chief Operating Officer Bay Love, was meeting several months before the New York Times published an exposé on racial disparities in traffic enforcement.
In the wake of the revelations in the Times, Mayor Vaughan quickly went on record as opposing resisting arrest as a standalone charge, while also expressing concern about minor vehicle infractions, which also disproportionately affect black drivers. And last month, with the mayor present, the Community-City Working Group voted to submit a comprehensive slate of recommendations to reform police practices to city council. In the meantime, Chief Scott has ordered officers to suspend traffic stops based on minor vehicle equipment infractions.
Without being there, it’s difficult to know whether this kind of searching collective inquest is going on in, say, Richmond, Va., Dayton, Ohio or Wichita, Kans., but it seems extraordinary to have 175 people show up on a Monday evening, as they did earlier this week at Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro, to hear two economics professors give a presentation on race and wealth. It seems within the realm of possibility that Greensboro might one day be considered a model of reconciliation and equitable growth — a truly progressive city.
Contrast the present with the studious avoidance of responsibility by Greensboro officials who framed the carnage inflicted by the Klan and Nazis in Morningside Homes 36 years ago.
“I think all of us realize the thing that scares us the most is that it really could have happened anywhere,” Vaughan said during the initial gathering of Doing Our Work in late June, in the aftermath of the massacre at the Charleston church. “Charleston is no different than Greensboro or any other city. And what happened in Charleston is really just symptomatic of what is happening across our country. It is obvious that race relations in our country are in a free fall.”
While Greensboro’s halting steps toward justice can be maddeningly slow and incomplete, Guilford County’s other city seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
In High Point, the human relations commission initiated a series of forums on police-community relations at the request of residents who were concerned about the high-profile, officer-involved deaths of young, black men in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City last year. The police walked out of sensitivity training and city council members raised objections to a flier issued by the human relations department that used the term “dismantling white supremacy.” As thanks for her work, Human Relations Director Al Heggins was put on paid leave and then fired.
While Greensboro leaders have come to acknowledge that racial disparities are real and tensions always hold the potential to boil over, High Point officials seem to want to punish any suggestion that their community is less than completely harmonious. How sad.
In Greensboro on Monday night, economists Larry Morse and Robert Williams walked through an American history of inequality, from the Fugitive Slave Act, Indian Removal Act and Homestead Act in the 19th Century through the Social Security Act, National Labor Relations Act, Fair Labor Standards Act and GI bill of the 20th Century that have systematically disadvantaged people of color while privileging whites. Bringing the history up to date, with tax policies designed to advantage the wealthy, they presented the results of this accumulated history: The average white household has 20 times more wealth than its black counterpart.
Williams drew a parallel between black people’s experience with the police today and the criminalization of ordinary activities of free black people simply trying to find better work under the Fugitive Slave Act.
“We came into this conversation through police-community relations,” Morse said. “We’ve realized that it’s a very complex issue embedded in a system of systems that involves things like tax policy and land-use decisions.”
One teach-in on the history of white privilege in wealth accumulation was never going to solve the problem of racism in Greensboro, and the 175 people in the church pews on Monday night seemed to recognize this is tough work that requires commitment for the long haul.