News, What's Race Got To Do With It?

What’s race got to do with it? UNC emails highlight views on Confederate statue controversy

Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series of NC Policy Watch blog posts examining disproportionate impacts on race — in the environment, education, the courts and other sectors — and the structural issues that lead to these inequalities.

My story this week on the main Policy Watch site examines hundreds of UNC Board of Governors emails concerning the ongoing controversy over “Silent Sam” – the only Confederate monument on a UNC campus.

The emails were sent last summer in the wake of deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and protesters toppling a Confederate statue in Durham. They give some insight into how fractured, contentious and backbiting relations have gotten on the UNC Board of Governors. But it’s worth remembering that UNC President Margaret Spellings and UNC Chancellor Carol Folt touched off the political firestorm at the center of the story by reaching out to Gov. Roy Cooper to convene the N.C. Historical Commission to decide the statue’s fate.

A majority of the board signed on to a letter that called the gesture “weak” and “hand-wringing,” suggesting that the university should meet protests that might threaten the statue not with a discussion of how to deal with the statue but by arresting the protesters.

It would later be revealed that Spellings and UNC Chancellor Carol Folt joked the University of Texas – in Spellings’ native Lone Star state – was “smarter” for immediately taking down their statues while North Carolina’s university system is mired in state-level political fight over the matter with no simple solutions.

The movement to remove the “Silent Sam” statue from UNC’s campus is very diverse. Students, staff, professors, alumni and even members of the UNC Board of Governors from various racial backgrounds have argued that the statue is racially offensive. But as emphasized in an interview with Dr. Valerie Johnson, a Bennett College professor who taught on UNC’s campus and is now on the historical commission, the greatest burden of the issue rests with Black people who are confronted with a monument to the confederacy on the campus where they work and study.

“If you have a big, gigantic statue to something that touts the supremacy of one group over another, that’s not a true reflection of the history,” Johnson said in her interview with Policy Watch. “You have one single view of that history.”

“I know this is a point of contention,” Johnson said. “Because some say the Civil War was an honorable cause. But for those of us who believe in the Union and understand what was at stake, it was seditious activity.”

“We can have conversation about that, but if that’s the only statue that is there, the only thing that is interpreting that aspect of history, you will get folks who recapitulate that – that it was an honorable endeavor, an honorable war,” Johnson said. “I want that to be in contention.It was not okay to enslave other humans. It’s still not okay. Full stop. Period.”

For Johnson and other professors from a large and growing list of departments at UNC and beyond, reducing the conversation about “Silent Sam” to one of law and order and the need to simply arrest protesters is offensive on multiple levels.

As Durham District Attorney Roger Echols made clear in a statement on those charged with toppling a Confederate statue in his city, the issue is far more complicated. This is from Echols’ statement: Read more

Environment, What's Race Got To Do With It?

What’s race got to do with it? Census data show Black, Latino neighborhoods especially vulnerable to air pollution

Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series of NC Policy Watch blog posts examining disproportionate impacts on race — in the environment, education, the courts and other sectors — and the structural issues that lead to these inequalities.

With nearly all Black or Latino residents, a census block group in east-central Winston-Salem, including areas near two city parks, is disproportionately burdened by air pollution. Another block group near the highway interchange is also a minority neighborhood with chronic exposure to diesel emissions and other air toxics. (Maps: EPA Environmental Justice Screen)

Some time next year it’s expected money will start flowing from North Carolina’s $92 million Volkswagen settlement fund to projects designed to reduce diesel air pollution. Chosen by DEQ and approved by a federal trustee, the projects, such as installing electric car charging stations or retiring diesel school buses for cleaner hybrid/electric models, must address areas that are disproportionately harmed by air pollution.

And most of the time, these areas are predominantly Black, Latino or American Indian and/or low-income.

Public policy has a way of piling on these communities. Rarely will you see a million-dollar home abutting a landfill, but these working-class neighborhoods may be burdened not only by their proximity to an interstate, where they live in a cloud of microscopic and damaging pollutants, but also dirty neighbors: major industry, dumps, Superfund sites, power plants, gas stations and other sources of pollution.

These same Black, Latino, American Indian and low-income residents are also more likely to endure health problems (and often with irregular access to health care) from those very pollutants: childhood asthma from bad air, for example. According to federal health statistics, Black children are four times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic white children. And in 2015, Black children had a death rate 10 times that of non-Hispanic white children.

Policy Watch used the EPA’s environmental justice screening tool to analyze several Census Block Groups in the state that appear vulnerable to both pollution and racial disparity. Here are some of our findings:

  • In one South Raleigh area bisected by the heavily traveled South Saunders Street, more than two-thirds of the 1,910 residents are Black and/or Latino. These neighborhoods also rank in the 97th percentile in EPA Region 4 for proximity to traffic. (This means these residents live closer to highly trafficked areas than 97 percent of census block groups within the eight Southeastern states in Region 4.) The block groups have similar rankings when compared to those statewide.
  •  In Winston-Salem, many underserved neighborhoods hug the major thoroughfares of I-40 and US 52. In east-central Winston near Rupert Bell Park, a block group that is 99 percent minority ranks in the mid-80th percentile both state and region-wide for ozone pollution and air toxics cancer risk. More than 1,470 people live in this block group. (See map at the top of the page.)
    The 1,055 people — all Black and/or Latino — who live near the I-40/ US 52 interchange are especially at risk of pollution-related illness. This block group ranks in the 92nd to 96th percentile for exposure to diesel emissions, air toxic cancer risk and respiratory hazards.
  • And in Fayetteville, a neighborhood of 2,309 at the northern gateway to the city is 69 percent minority, according to EPA data. Regionwide, it ranks in the 84th percentile for diesel particulate matter and 94th for its proximity to Superfund sites, which can also contribute to air pollution.