Black Community Pushes Durham Officials to Address Racial Bias

After complaints from a county employee of racial discrimination in the workplace, Black faith and political leaders want county officials to address a growing culture of anti-Blackness.

(TNS) — The debate about racial bias in Durham County, N.C., government grew louder Wednesday when more community leaders and organizations weighed in.

Two of the city's political groups joined Black faith and political leaders pushing elected officials to address county employees' allegations that some county commissioners are racially biased against them.

Members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Friends of Durham spoke at a news conference outside county offices on Main Street. Joining them were leaders from the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Durham, Durham Clergy United, and the city's Racial Equity Task Force.

"We are watching Durham get progressively ill," said Elaine O'Neal, former chair of the Racial Equity Task Force. "We see this as a perpetuation of a culture of anti-Blackness." The allegations arose last year after the county hired Duke University law professor James E. Coleman Jr. to investigate alleged racial bias and unfair treatment of county employees. The Durham Committee sent the county a letter last month, citing the bias allegations and asking that Commissioner Heidi Carter recuse herself from any discussion about County Manager Wendell Davis' contract.

Davis accused Carter of racism last year.

"It is our fundamental belief that no employee should be subjected to a toxic work environment," said Antonio Jones, chair of the Durham Committee. "Furthermore, it is time to stop disrespecting, scapegoating and gas-lighting Black county employees for political appeasement."

Why Did Durham County Hire a Consultant?

Last February, Davis accused Carter of having a racial bias against him and other people of color after Carter criticized him at a public meeting for how long it was taking staff to plan school construction projects.

In a letter to Carter published by local media, Davis wrote that Carter had once told him, "You work for the Board, and when we tell you to do something, you'd better grin and bear it."

Carter, a former Durham school board member, was seeking re-election. She called the accusations "baseless" and claimed Davis was trying to sabotage her campaign. She later apologized for her role in the conflict.

Davis' letter led to two independent probes.

  • An oversight committee for county managers reviewed the matter after getting an anonymous complaint.
  • The county spent $29,343 to hire Coleman as a legal consultant to investigate the claims.

What Did Coleman's Report Say About Racial Bias?

In his nine-page report, Coleman said the tension between the commissioners and manager, and between commissioners, has put Durham County government in "a state of periodic dysfunction."

Coleman interviewed county commissioners, the county manager and staff members. He found:

  • A lack of collegiality among some commissioners and a lack of trust between some commissioners and the manager.
  • Some employees felt micromanaged by Commissioners Wendy Jacobs and Carter, the only white members currently on the board.
  • The manner and tone in which some commissioners asked Davis and staff questions could be perceived as "disrespectful of their expertise" or "biased."
  • Staff were often caught in the middle of disputes between the board and the manager.
Coleman found no evidence of intentional or conscious racial bias. However, his report stated both the manager and his staff "reasonably could have perceived" Carter's criticism of Davis last year as racially biased, at least implicitly so.

Nearly two-thirds of Durham County employees are part of a minority group, Jones said, and most of those employees are Black.

Where Does Public School Funding Fit Into This?

Davis has been a critic of Durham Public Schools, saying it is not doing enough to raise Black students' achievement. He has rejected the school board's full funding requests, saying he can't recommend more money for a district that is losing students.

As a school board member and as a commissioner, Carter has opposed Davis' budget proposals for school funding.

Jones said local leaders need to have "an open and honest conversation" about public school funding.

The state carries the burden on school funding, but historically the General Assembly has not provided enough money to meet districts' needs, he said.

"As white parents chose, over decades, to leave Durham Public Schools for various reasons, there's a cost associated with it," he said in an interview with The N&O.

Durham County ranks third across the state on local spending per student, according to a 2020 report by the Public School Forum of North Carolina. The data draws from the 2017-18 fiscal year.

A 2019 assessment found DPS needs $727 million in maintenance and improvement projects over the next 10 years, The N&O reported.

What About Davis' Contract?

Davis' contract, up for re-negotiation, will automatically renew unless the commissioners vote to end it by June.

Since March, three prominent political groups have weighed in.

  • The People's Alliance asked the commissioners to hire a new manager who would match the board's progressive, political philosophy.
  • The Friends of Durham, two weeks later, opposed PA's statement, saying managers are supposed to be nonpolitical.
  • The Durham Committee followed with a letter in support of county employees and requested Carter recuse herself from discussing Davis' contract.
At Wednesday's news conference, O'Neal said the county should halt all decision-making about the contract "until the commission no longer operates out of the current dysfunction."

She said the commissioners need to find a constructive way to address the issues in Coleman's report.

"Instead of responding effectively to the charge of periodic dysfunction, there has been continued questioning of County Manager Davis' competence, salary, character and motivation," she said. "That is dehumanizing."

Jones said Carter's disputes with Davis pose a conflict of interest.

Carter declined to recuse herself from discussions about the contract in March, citing state statutes requiring her to vote.

What's Next?

Henry McKoy, an N.C. Central University business professor who spoke at Wednesday's news conference, is co-hosting a virtual town hall at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, to discuss the public conversation regarding Davis.

McKoy invited the Durham Committee, Friends of Durham and The People's Alliance to take part in the conversation last week.

The Friends of Durham and the Durham Committee have agreed to join the town hall. The PA declined.

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