Nearly nine months after Athens City Council passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, the city is making strides toward ensuring that Athens is an equitable place for people of all races.
The resolution was passed in June 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. With many cities across the United States acknowledging Floyd’s death being racially motivated, the resolution also encourages Athens Mayor Steve Patterson to cultivate a task force to conduct a racial equity review of the city’s code and policies.
The task force is working with the Racial Equity Coalition of the Athens County Foundation, which has been around since 2018, to comb through various sections of code and identify any language that may be racially discriminatory, vague or missing altogether.
Although this process is relatively new, the task force has already had some success in weeding out discriminatory language.
“I had tasked my city planner with looking through city titles and deeds for various properties … to see if there is discriminatory language or redlining in the city of Athens,” Patterson said. “One of the things that he did identify … (was) a property that had discriminatory language in it in terms of who could purchase property in the future.”
Despite this step in the right direction, Patterson said actually changing the language of titles and deeds is difficult. He said a property owner cannot simply amend their title or deed and must go through the courts instead.
“It's expensive, and it's a legal process. You can't just go in and remove any language from your own deed, on your own. You have to go through a legal process (and) you have to go through the courts to do it,” Patterson said. “So, trying to get the state to change the way it does business is one of my major efforts right now.”
The task force’s partnership with the Racial Equity Coalition will help it complete the review in a more thorough manner, Kerry Pigman, the executive director of the Athens County Foundation, said. The coalition, which normally functions independently of the city to host events and conduct research on race-related issues, is working to complement the task force’s review.
“I think the good thing is that there are so many people that are focused on this effort and working together,” Pigman said. “I think we'll obviously be able, as with all things, to accomplish more together than we would if everybody was working independently.”
Even with the efforts of Patterson and the task force, along with the Racial Equity Coalition, some community members have been critical of the city’s enforcement of the resolution.
Damon Krane, a member of Athens County Copwatch and former mayoral candidate, said the city’s efforts are misplaced.
“My take is that a review of the city code is fine, but last year's protests were about policing,” Krane said. “Those protests are what led Council to pass its June 22 resolution, and that resolution didn't just commit to a review of the city code. In the very same sentence, it committed to a review and revision of all city operations … and city operations obviously include policing.”
In Krane’s opinion, City Council’s passage of the resolution was mostly for show. Although he thinks the resolution is well-written and calls for the right kinds of changes, he said he wants to see Council follow through on its promises.
“If all that's being reviewed is the code and some property deeds, then unfortunately this is just a classic case of bait and switch,” Krane said. “It's also a case of seven affluent white politicians exploiting Black suffering for their own advantage, while doing nothing to actually alleviate Black suffering … (the) resolution grabbed headlines and made Council look like a bunch of good white liberals, but then Council reneged on all the resolution’s commitments and only worked to preserve the status quo in policing.”
On top of criticisms regarding the substance of the review itself, the timetable of the city’s actions has also come under fire. Many in the community are frustrated that the review has taken more than eight months to get underway, including Krane.
Patterson feels his constituents’ criticisms are misaligned, especially the ones concerned with the timing of the review.
“It's not an easy process to get a new board or task force up and going,” Patterson said. “It's not something that happens overnight.”
He also wants people to know that the review will be a fluid process, one without a set due date or timetable in mind due to years of systemic racism throughout generations in the United States.
“I think people have this perception that there will be a full report that will come out in six months or a year or something like that … it's a dynamic, long-term process, and when I say long-term, I'm talking decades,” Patterson said. “That would be doing a huge disservice to Black and brown people if we sat there and said ‘OK, well, we're going to correct everything within the next X amount of months.’ That's just ridiculous.”