Talk to him: Activist scoffs at racial tension plan
Charlottesville's plan to address discrimination and racism has earned the ire of longtime civil rights activist Eugene Williams, who calls a City plan to spend at least $10,000 on a consultant to get black people to speak to whites "a waste of time," and suggests that City Hall should begin to address racism by looking inward.
"There is no question, City of Charlottesville government does not yet set an example for good race relations in all walks of life," Williams writes in a four-page letter to Mayor Dave Norris.
Williams claims racism should be a priority for the city's CEO, City Manager Gary O'Connell to handle directly and blasts the fact that it's getting delegated to a consultant and to an assistant city manager who happens to be African American, even if it is popular ex-sportscaster Maurice Jones.
"A black is assigned the black problem," scoffs Williams. "I do not think he is the person to deal with the bedrock of segregation and discrimination in Charlottesville."
Jones and O'Connell did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but the mayor did.
"I think [Williams] makes a good point that the city manager and I need to take the lead, and not the assistant city manager," says Mayor Norris. "There are some specific things I absolutely agree with, like the no parking signs around Garrett Square."
That's a long-standing bone of contention for Williams, and he calls the no-parking-from-9pm-to-5am signs around Friendship Court (formerly called Garrett Square) "racist" because parking isn't restricted like that anywhere else in town.
Williams also alleges that some city government departments are all white. Norris says steps have been made toward diversity in City Hall over the past six to nine months.
"I fully agree that we need to build on that and make sure we have a workforce that reflects the community," says Norris.
"Racism is getting worse," says 81-year-old Williams, who grew up in segregated Charlottesville and has fought discrimination all his life. He lists high unemployment and academic underachievement facing many African Americans here.
"Blacks are not doing well," says Williams. "That [Downtown] Mall is a no-man's territory for black people."
According to Williams, "Today's injustice is a residue from the injustice of yesterday. It's a carryover.
"I think there are many ways to get to where we want to be," says City Councilor Holly Edwards, who is African American. "Everything [Eugene Williams] is saying is true."
She agrees that O'Connell should take ownership of the race relations issue, but that in delegating it to the assistant city manager, "I think he chose the most culturally competent person– that's Maurice," she says.
Edwards likes the idea of a consultant to oversee the racial dialogue, because such talks in the past have fizzled out. She believes a consultant would give the talks consistency and "make sure it's done well and not do any harm," she says.
She adds that City Council has authorized no consultant expenditures yet, and will be given recommendations by Jones at its January 20 meeting.
The date is the same day Barack Obama will be sworn in as the United States' first African American president, and the historic event draws one more complaint from Williams about City Council's examination of racial discrimination.
"If you really would like to engage the Charlottesville community and invite them into a discussion about race relations, perhaps it would be better to choose a date on which media coverage will not be preoccupied with the inauguration," he writes.
"The feeling is we did not want to put if off," explains Councilor Edwards. "The scheduling is not intentional, and most inaugural events will be over. The swearing-in will be over."
That said, Edwards herself may not be at the City Council meeting that night because she got tickets from new Congressman Tom Perriello to attend the swearing-in, and she's anticipating not being back in time for the City Council meeting.
But she makes clear that racial relations in Charlottesville are important to her, and she takes no offense at Williams' criticism of how City Council has approached it.
"Eugene is being Eugene," says Edwards. "If he didn't react, I'd worry. We need this conversation so we can generate a new generation of reactors."