There’s a national conversation going on about race, law enforcement, equal protection and unequal access, particularly as it pertains to minorities and people of color.
It’s a dialogue that began in earnest after an unarmed 18-year-old named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. following on the heels of another black man’s death at the hands of police in New York City. It grew more nuanced and focused after #BlackLivesMatter emerged from the bloodshed, sustained through the hot summer of 2015 by more racially tinged police shootings and attacks on law enforcement, topped off with a divisive controversy about the Confederate flag.
As modern cities nationwide are looking for ways to soften their relationships with the inordinately poor and black communities that bear the brunt of institutional racism, in High Point they’re taking a different tack.
In the cities of the Triad, human relations commissions often act as liaisons between cities and citizens with beef. Imperfect though they may be — no subpoena power, no enforcement mechanisms, no real teeth — human relations commissions have a specific mission.
In Winston-Salem it works “for the elimination of discrimination in any and all fields of human relationships.”
Greensboro’s human relations commission aims to “improve the quality of life for Greensboro residents by encouraging fair treatment and promoting mutual understanding and respect….”
High Point’s human relations commission has dealt more this year with internal issues than its stated mission to investigate complaints of discrimination. Director Al Heggins, who is black, went on leave after an email she authored outlining racism in city government caused her to fear for her life.
And last week, council unanimously voted on a complete overhaul of the commission, redefining its focus, removing its limited powers and dismissing the board.
“There was a flier that went out referencing ‘white supremacy’ and a lot of other things that were very troubling to many in the community,” he said.
The impetus, according to Councilman Latimer Alexander, was a program entitled “Black & Blue” created by the commission specifically to address issues of race and law enforcement that has been plaguing the country.
“There was a flier that went out referencing ‘white supremacy’ and a lot of other things that were very troubling to many in the community,” he said. “It was the language that folks did not appreciate.”
It’s the same tactic we saw a different council use when disbanding City Project and relocating then-executive director Wendy Fuscoe in 2014. That one had consequences in the next election. This new council showed its willingness to bury its collective head in the sand when Heggins’ complaints resulted in nothing but her paid leave in June.
High Point is a divided city on many fronts.
Remember, this is a city that has yet to hold an African-American mayor for a full term, where efforts to make a proper Martin Luther King Jr. Drive met with strong resistance until earlier this year, where income inequality, food insecurity and general injustice disproportionately affect the 35 percent of the city that happens to be black.
Alexander and those he speaks for have one thing right: These truths are uncomfortable. Until they’re addressed, they always will be.