HIGH POINT, N.C. — Long before he was the mayor of High Point, Jay Wagner was a young student at Northwood School.
“At Northwood, we had a lot white kids from the western side of town,” Wagner said. “And then we had kids from the housing projects that were bused to school.”
He says for the most part everyone got along, but you could always sense tension.
“You heard a lot more mean language than you hear now. And it was on both sides. I’d hear it from the Black kids from the projects. They’d hear it from us. It never got to the point of fighting.”
City Councilman Cyril Jefferson moved to High Point when he was 14. He said he saw race issues more systemically than personally.
“Whether it’s how housing is across town, or how the state of education is in our community, you start to see how that plays out,” Jefferson said. “You start to look at some of the numbers and you start to have a bigger picture view that paints a story about race.”
He says that changed when he got to city council and as the city has pushed its mission of being North Carolina’s International City. He believes most people don’t mean any harm. Rather, they just don’t know any better.
“Whether it’s based on their background or how they grew up, or just some of the norms that they were taught they don’t realize how certain things advance racism, how certain things continue to create certain habits and structures that are not as beneficial for a certain group of people,” Jefferson said.
As High Pointers watched the recent protests, and those protests made their way here, both say the race conversation is happening in a way they’ve never seen.
“I can’t go anywhere or talk to anybody right now that doesn’t want to talk about race,” Wagner said. “So, those protests we had and that initial tension that made a lot of people feel uncomfortable, I think has transformed into a tension that’s more a productive tension where we’re sitting and talking to each other and trying to work through this mentally.”
“There have probably been dozens of folks who took upon themselves to reach out to me to say ‘Cyril, the conversation of race is one that I’m curious about, it’s one that I’m compassionate about. I want to learn more. I want to do more,’” Jefferson said.
The city itself is doing more. City council approved a budget in June that included funding for a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Specialist.
“This is a path we were already on. That position is I think is important because it’s going to help keep us on track with our overall goals of providing equal opportunity for everyone,” Wagner said.
On a more personal level, the mayor says he’s hearing from Black and white people who are working their way through the history of race in the country.
“They’re trying to educate themselves on how we got here so they have a better grasp on how we can digest what’s going on now and how we can move forward,” Wagner said.
Both Wagner and Jefferson believe moving forward has to be done person-to-person.
Wagner breaks it down this way: “If I learn about you and I learn to treat you with respect, I’m more likely to treat someone who looks like you who I don’t know with that same respect. I think ultimately that’s how we have to deal with it.”
“My sentiment that I tell a lot of folks is we’ve got to be strong and resolute about this one truth. None of us are to blame for the race problem in our country. That started many centuries ago. However, we all should assume the responsibility of making it better,” Jefferson said.
Wagner says beyond hiring the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Specialist, the city is looking at ways to do more outreach to minority businesses in the contracting process. This is part of the city’s effort to make sure there’s equal opportunity for everyone.