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At the inaugural meeting of Charleston’s most controversial commission, Councilman Jason Sakran outlined the challenges he and other board members will likely face as they try to reckon with racism in the city and the legacy of disparities it has helped create over the course of three centuries.

People will call them names and nitpick what they do and don’t do. It is difficult discussing race in a public setting. And it will take time for them to trust each other enough to have in-depth conversations.

“I hope we can get there,” Sakran said.

  • By Emma Whalen

Thus began the work of the Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission. It is the latest step in an effort by city leaders to confront racism in Charleston’s past and present, following the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church in which a white supremacist fatally shot nine Black worshippers.

People involved in the push for racial equity in Charleston say they are guided by a moral responsibility. But they also point to the economic gains that could occur for everyone in the region if longstanding racial gaps in areas such as wealth, education, health and hiring are closed.

City Councilman Jason Sakran is the interim chair of the new Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission. File/Staff

That the new board was even formed is a sign of the desire by many to bring about change. But it took several months for a majority of City Council to agree to create the new commission.

How it came together showcased a deeply entrenched reality: Despite years of hand-holding and prayers, surveys and reports, community forums and kind words, many in the city are still resistant to acknowledge that racism exists and to discuss potential solutions to racial disparities.

“There is a disconnect in the community, particularly the White community, around this work and what it actually means,” said Sakran, who is White and serves as the interim chair of the new commission. People often feel that for someone to gain means someone else has to lose. Some suspect the goal is to blame White people or to focus only on slavery. None of that is true, he said.

It’s about addressing barriers that have prevented African Americans from having equal opportunities, Sakran said.

Encountering resistance

The new group is a successor to a temporary committee on equity, inclusion and racial conciliation formed in 2020 after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in Minneapolis by a White police officer. City Council directed the temporary committee to come up with recommendations to promote racial justice and equity across Charleston.

But last year, when the group returned with a 545-page report of suggested policy actions, they were met with resistance from both community and City Council members. The pushback mostly centered on a handful of ideas, including that the city create a reparations fund for Black residents and that it partner with the Charleston County School District to promote critical race theory, which holds that racism is embedded in America’s history and institutions.

Some labeled a recommendation to examine the Police Department’s budget for potential reallocation and savings as a call to “defund the police.” 

A majority of the City Council voted against formally receiving the group’s recommendations, which were offered for consideration rather than direct action. 

“I thought we could come in and do this work and we could make things better right away,” said Tracy Doran, president of the Humanities Foundation. She was one of dozens of local expert volunteers involved in the temporary committee. “I realized that’s not the case.”

Despite the blowback, Sakran and fellow City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie forged ahead on the recommendation to create a board on equity, inclusion and racial conciliation.

  • By Deanna Pan

A conservative advocacy group, the American Heritage Association, launched a targeted lobbying campaign against creating the new committee. Another group said it gathered some 1,700 signatures on a petition opposing the panel. After weeks of negotiations, council members in February voted to change the name and form the Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission. But it did so with restrictions.

The 13-person board is not permanent; City Council can review and reauthorize it every three years. It is made up of community representatives and council members who can recommend, but not make, policy changes. The board is also specifically not allowed to advocate for defunding the city’s police, providing cash reparations, teaching critical race theory, or violating a state law that says only the Legislature can decide whether to remove war memorials on public property.

Amber Johnson was Charleston’s first equity, inclusion, and racial conciliation manager before leaving the role in April. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Other challenges

Further complicating matters for the new commission is that, in April, Amber Johnson left her role as the city’s equity, inclusion and racial conciliation manager. She was the first person to hold that job with the city.

Johnson was seen as key facilitator for the temporary committee and was supposed to serve as an important ally for the new commission.

In an interview, Johnson said she decided to leave the job to get away from personal attacks made about her and her work in response to the recommendations proposed by the temporary committee. She declined to elaborate on those attacks but said she felt she was treated differently by critics because she is a Black woman.

At the same time, Johnson said she was also heartened by what she saw in her three years on the job. City staff wanted to improve equity and diversity. They helped her produce an interactive website, which documents some of Charleston’s racial history and disparities. And numerous community members spoke out in favor of pushing for racial equity.

“There are definitely people there who are willing to do the work and willing to fight for it,” Johnson said.

As of early July, city staff was still working to hire her replacement. The job has a salary range of $70,165 to $77,182, city officials said.

“We’re the perfect place to be a leader in addressing issues of race and conciliation,” Mayor John Tecklenburg said. “It may seem ironic, in a way to some people, but that adds to the beauty of us pursuing this and doing it here.”

  • By Emma Whalen

Charleston was a major entry point for enslaved Africans, a bastion of segregation and the site of civil rights protests. In January, the International African American Museum is set to open at Gadsden’s Wharf, an area of the peninsula that played a significant role in slavery.

In the meantime, many are hopeful the new commission can help spur action.

“Discussion is good, but you’ve got to go to the next step,” said Felice Knight, a Citadel professor who served on the temporary committee. “We need implementation, not just conversation.”

  • By Hannah Alani

When the commission met on June 16, Sakran acknowledged that the group was a long time coming and that it had work to do. 

The process for nominating committee members has taken months. The group is now made up of 11 members, eight of whom are White. Three are Black. Their members include an educator, a psychologist, an engineer and business people. 

It is supposed to review the temporary commission’s suggestions, make recommendations to the mayor and City Council, and work with the city on community engagement and education efforts. 

  • By Emma Whalen

Still, Sakran urged patience so board members could get to know one another.

“If we don’t trust each other, and we can’t have honest discussions, then this commission really is just window dressing,” he said.

Because the commission has only met once, it hasn’t caused a stir among City Council members yet. 

Other than city staff, the commissioners were alone. No one from the public showed up.

Emma Whalen contributed to this report. 

This content was originally published here.

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