One Step Back

I find it very disheartening to hear that the progress made against racism in the Town of Chapel Hill's Public Works department could be undone by the departure of two leaders. This indicates that not much progress was made at all, which is exactly what the Black Public Works Association (BPWA) would have probably told us in the first place.

The Black Public Works Association also suggested a number of remedies to the problems. Until the recent change in leadership, workers said, the department had made progress on stemming some of the problems pointed out in previous years.

"We know it is impossible to change attitudes, stereotypes and behavior overnight," Steve England, president of the association, said in a letter signed by eight other employees.

"But because there are no black people in the highest levels, we know that leadership will backslide in its commitments to being even nonracist -- much less the anti-racist commitment that should be the goal of all management."- News & Observer, 4/29/04


Excellent point, Terri. I can't believe I overlooked that.

It's pretty disppointing to see that the Manager intends to handle these as individual cases when the complaint is about a PATTERN of racism:

Just because he hears the cases individually, doesn't mean the response needs to be case by case - eg anti-racism training for the whole department.

Alas, North Carolina state law bars Cal from 'collective bargaining' as I understand it. Could the separate grievance hearings be related to steering clear of any violation of the 'collective bargaining' prohibition? Just a thought . . .

Don't overlook the discussions on school merger and "all kids are gifted" as examples of how privilege plays out in this community.

The Black Public Works Association was formed in 1995 in response to a bunch of predominantly African-American men in the town's Department of Public Works who were sick and tired of being sick and tired of low pay, prejudicial treatment, unfair pay practices, and good-old-boy racism.

In the course of four years of active organizing, and as a direct result of the grievances aired by the BPWA:

- overtime accounting practices were cleaned up (meaning that a Department of Labor investigation uncovered thousands of dollars in illegally withheld overtime pay, based on an audit that only covered only a few most recent years)

-pay was increased for the lowest paid workers (the ones who collect your garbage, pave your streets and sidewalks, cut the grass and trim the bushes...and who were making less than $16,000 per year full time, all but one of whom were black)

-discriminatory, informal policies were dismantled (including an eyeglasses replacement program for whites, which blacks were told didn't exist)

-for the first time in history, an African-American was promoted to the position of department head (Fred Battle, put in charge of Chapel Hill Parks & Recreation).

And, for the first time in town history, workers "met and conferred" on an ongoing basis with high-ranking town administrators. Which undoubtedly helped town managers understand the gravity behind the workers' dissatisfaction as well as helping workers see how the town really works over there in Town Hall.

The BPWA has been low-key for a few years, but things like institutional racism and Chapel Hill class prejudice and misunderstanding haven't simply gone away. So the group has become re-invigorated and re-focused on the same goals of fairness and equal opportunity that it initially organized around.

Chances are good that most people who read this website aren't municipal workers. I encourage readers to go outside their comfort zones and speak with the folks who literally make Chapel Hill what it is, and who are the backbone of the place, the public workers who work hard every day for this town despite the fact that very few can afford to live here.

Ask them about Richard Terrell, a supervisor long viewed as prejudiced toward blacks. Ask how they feel about their opportunity for advancement in the town system. Ask them if their supervisors hire cousins or other relatives for the better jobs instead of promoting qualified workers.

But most of all, tell them you appreciate their hard work. Without it, Chapel Hill would be a much more stinky, pot-holed, and overgrown place than it is.

Chapel Hill is so often accused of being liberal and progressive. Why and how is this happening? I am amazed.

For decades, our reputation has allowed us to rest in complacency. Ors is a comunity of people who enjoy their privileges (especially as liberals) and don't want to give them up.

Remember this conversation?

It isn't unrelated to this, either:

I just wish people would challenge themselves a little, and think about what it really takes to PROGRESS toward social and economic justice. In my experience (and in my studies), it takes sacrifice.


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