A Brief Foray into Criminal Charges

In the next few posts we will begin to explore what charges people are being held on in the Buncombe County jail. Before that, however, I want to give you a rough map to the system of criminal charges.

Crimes in North Carolina (and beyond) are broadly grouped into two categories, misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are not as serious as felonies and have a maximum sentence of 150 days plus a possible fine. Felonies are more serious, with penalties ranging from fines and probation to prison terms up to life imprisonment or the death penalty.

In general, the specific penalties depend on the “class” of the crime. Misdemeanors start from class 3 (the least serious), followed by 2, 1 and A1 (the most serious and generally associated with violent offenses). On the felony end, there are nine classes. In order of increasing seriousness, they are I, H, G, F, E, D, C, B1, B2, and A (A felonies are all punishable by life imprisonment or death). Sentencing is complicated by consideration of things like criminal history or aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

That’s all pretty theoretical, so let’s look at some examples from the (as of today) 511 different charges that have been listed for people in jail since January. Keep in mind that these are just some randomly picked examples – you can download the latest full list of charges here.

At the lowest end, class 3 misdemeanors include things like possessing a small amount of marijuana, urinating in public, driving without a license, or disorderly conduct. Class 2 includes things like harassment, reckless driving and low-level fraud. Class 1 includes more serious drug possession charges, various kinds of low-level theft, and communicating threats. Finally, A1 misdemeanors are typically violent, primarily assault charges.

Felonies range from drug possession or low-level financial crimes (like stealing a credit card) at the low end through property crimes like burglary or arson, low-level drug trafficking and various kinds of assault to high-level trafficking and violent crimes like rape or murder.

Driving while impaired (DWI) charges are a special case – they have a separate sentencing rubric with a complicated system of levels and aggravating or mitigating factors, but in the analyses we will be doing we have simply mapped them to approximate misdemeanor or felony classes based on similarity of the actual punishment ranges.

Finally, there are charges that don’t fall into any of the categories above. Some are infractions rather than crimes, which means that they may involve fines but not jail. Another category is violation of pretrial or post-conviction conditions. These are not in themselves crimes, but can cause a person to be held in jail or prison. And some of the charges that show up on the jail website simply indicate that someone is being held on behalf of another agency such as the federal government. To keep things as simple as possible, most of the analyses will be based on the most serious charge, and we will simply exclude anyone being held after conviction or on behalf of another agency.

Even so, as you see, the whole thing can get pretty complicated. For a basic analysis, though, we can  think of the various classes above simply as a 14-point range from least to most serious: a class 3 misdemeanor charge is labeled as level 1, while first degree murder, an A felony, is level 14. You can find the full mapping in the table below. To aid in our analysis,, we will also classify each charge as violent, drug-related, or DWI-related, as appropriate [1].

In the next post we will do a basic analysis of the top charges people are held on in the Buncombe County jail.

[1] In selecting which charges to tag as violent, we follow the methodology employed in the Measuring Justice Dashboard from the UNC School of Government Criminal Justice Innovation Lab.

*Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022.

LevelMisdemeanor ClassLevelFelony Class
1Class 35Class I
2Class 26Class H
3Class 17Class G
4Class A18Class F
9Class E
10Class D
11Class C
12Class B2
13Class B1
14Class A
Mapping of Crime Class to Numeric Level

Who Is In Charge of the Criminal Legal System?

The last few posts have explored data about who is in jail in Buncombe County and how long they stay there. We will continue that exploration, but it’s important to have some context about the criminal legal system within which it occurs.

For one thing, the jail itself, which is run by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, is uniquely not responsible for who is there or how long. If a magistrate says they are to be booked in, the jail must book them in, and they can’t let anyone out until a judge says so.

So who is actually in charge?

The picture most of us have of the criminal legal system looks very like a black box. We hear that “they got the guy,” assume that the guy they got is actually the right guy (which the legal system decidedly is not supposed to assume), and then forget about it from that point.

If we do think about it, we probably imagine a courtroom like we’ve seen on TV or in a movie with a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a jury, and a judge, with the judge obviously in charge. It’s a nice picture, but not at all how things really work. 

The real answer as to who is in charge may surprise you: nobody. 

To quote from the first chapter of a criminal law textbook:

…to speak of a criminal justice ‘system’ is something of a misnomer. To be sure, the various agencies and institutions of criminal justice are highly interdependent, and efforts to address problems in one of them are likely to fail if they do not take into account the repercussions of reform on all the others. But the agencies of criminal justice are not part of a single, coherent organization. Their relationships with one another often are haphazard and uncoordinated.” [1]

Think about it for a moment: who are the main actors in the criminal legal system, after law enforcement hands someone over? The state General Assembly who makes the laws, the sheriff (who runs the jail and provides court security, including the bailiffs), a number of District and Superior Court judges (along with appellate judges and the state Supreme Court), the District Attorney, the Clerk of Court, and defense attorneys. 

Every one of these except the last are elected in North Carolina, so each has their own power base (including each individual judge). And defense attorneys are a collection of independent private attorneys and attorneys in the Office of the Public Defender who are accountable to their clients. On top of those main actors we have Pretrial Services, Probation and Parole, and Victim Services, each an independent agency which does not answer to any of the others.

So not only is no one in charge, no part of the system is even answerable to any other part. This has two very important consequences. 

First, even if every actor in the system operates with the best of intentions (and in general I believe that they do), things can get very messed up and lead to results that each individual actor agrees are bad. 

And second, even if everyone agrees the system should change, actually doing so is incredibly difficult. Besides the ordinary inertia of any system, every major actor has the power to say no to any particular change (which they often will since, even when people agree on the outcome, they often disagree on the means). Add in three other distinctive features of American criminal justice that are reflected in Buncombe County as well: a high volume of cases, a chronic shortage of resources, and “broad, largely unguided and largely uncontrolled discretion” [2], and you have a recipe for a system that is intensely resistant to change.

There is, however, a vital part of the system that we have not yet named: the public. It’s the public that votes for elected officials and it’s the public that sits on juries. And in the end, it is to the public that all the actors in the system and even the laws themselves are accountable. That accountability is slow and the law and its systems often lag significantly, but if we truly want to reform our criminal legal systems so as to turn them into actual systems for justice, it is the public that will drive the change.

That’s a long, slow, and difficult process, but one aspect of it is that the public needs to understand just how the system actually works. That is the underlying spur for these posts. I am under no illusion that what I’m writing will be “popular,” but I do hope that it can be a resource for community leaders, community groups, elected officials, and local media.

1. Sanford H. Kadish, Stephen J. Schulhofer and Carol S. Steiker, Criminal Law and its Processes: Cases and Materials, 8th Ed. (Austin, Aspen Publishers, 2007), 1.
2. Ibid., 2-3.

How Long Do People Stay in the Buncombe County Jail? Part 2: Race & Gender Patterns

We saw in the last post that the majority of people incarcerated in Buncombe County pretrial are only there for a few days. We also saw that there are significant racial and gender disparities in the jail, but that they varied according to whether we focused on the population in jail at a particular moment (including an average over time) or looked at the statistics of everyone cycling through. 

For example, about 30% of the population of the jail at any given time is Black, but when we look at the population of everyone booked into the jail in 2022, that drops to 20%. The disparity is still very significant, given that Black people only make up 6.3% of the population in Buncombe County, but noticeably lower. A similar phenomenon works with gender: over time the average female population in the jail is about 12%, but the percentage jumps to 24% when we look at all bookings in 2022.

I asserted that the difference arises from the fact that some demographic groups tend to be incarcerated for a longer time than others and that leads them to be overrepresented in the jail population at any given time, even if there is no other disparity (which, in fact, there is). 

The chart below demonstrates that for completed jail stays of Black versus white people. Rather than raw counts, it shows the percentage of people within each race that stay for each period of time. The actual data are shown in the table below.

Bar chart showing differences in stay lengths by race for different periods, clearly demonstrating that Black people tend to be incarcerated longer than white people. Numbers in the table at the end of the post.

This makes clear that, in addition to a base disparity arising from the number of Black versus white people arrested and booked into the jail, there is an additional disparity in the amount of time spent, with more white people staying shorter times and more Black people longer ones (the longest category is probably somewhat undercounted since the chart only includes completed stays, but including incomplete stays only makes the disparity greater).

As expected, a similar pattern shows up for female versus male occupants, with women more likely to be released earlier, indeed, within a week. This represents a significant contribution to the difference in male and female occupants at any given time, although by no means most of it.

Bar chart showing differences in stay lengths by gender for different periods, clearly demonstrating that men tend to be incarcerated longer than women. Numbers in the table at the end of the post.

We need to be very careful about interpreting this data. Indeed, at this point we cannot interpret it at all. Without further study of the underlying charges, all we can do is note the disparity. We will get to that fairly soon, but the next post will step back briefly from the data and look at how the system itself operates.

The table below shows the actual numbers behind the charts above.

Week or less64.67%59.14%61.24%71.03%
8-30 days20.29%19.35%20.18%20.63%
31-90 days12.32%17.74%14.81%8.33%
Over 90 days2.72%3.76%3.77%0.0%
Completed Stay Lengths By Race and Gender

*Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022.

How Long Do People Stay in the Buncombe County Jail? Part 1: Overall Patterns

This is another question that has different answers depending on the specific frame. Let’s start as we did last time and look at how long the 464 folks in the Buncombe County jail this morning, June 30, 2022, have been here. The result is displayed in the chart at right.

So if you ask a random person in the jail today how long they’ve been there, chances are they’ll answer that it’s been more than a month, and likely quite a bit more.

Those statistics include everybody in the jail, which includes people held on behalf of the Federal government, people serving sentences (up to 90 days), people temporarily there on the way from or to state prisons or other counties, and people being held for non-payment of child support (a completely separate system from the normal criminal one – we’ll definitely be taking a look at that one in the future).

What happens if we only consider only the people being held pre-trial (in other words, they have not yet been convicted of anything). That reduces the total by about 100 people, but the chart looks similar. The average stay is slightly shorter, but it is still true that most people in the jail have been there for longer or much longer than a month.

So most people who go to jail spend over a month there, right? Not so fast! We have the same issue that we saw in the last post. A point-in-time snapshot skews the statistics toward those who stay longer.

So let’s look at stays for everyone who has been in the jail this year, where a stay is defined as the number of days from entry into the jail to either the day of exit or today. And let’s stay focused on the ones who are there pre-trial. In 2022 so far we have had 2,410 such stays.

Now we see a very different result at right. Most people are in jail for a week or less, and only 22.6% are in for more than a month. Recall from the earlier post that about 15 people enter the jail every day, almost all of them part of the pre-trial population. As I pointed out there, if we kept them all for as long as the chart above implies, we would immediately overwhelm the capacity of the jail.

It is worth emphasizing too that this is the way it’s supposed to be. Every one of those 2,410 people had been arrested for a crime but had not been convicted. Formally at least, and in some cases actually, they are innocent. It is a principle of our criminal legal system that they should only be held if they are considered dangerous or a significant flight risk. The ones that stay either fall into those categories or can’t afford to pay even a low secured bond (I will write more on bonds in the near future and link to that from here).

In the next post we will dig into some interesting demographic patterns in how long people stay in the Buncombe County jail.

July 31, 2022 Update: A recent conversation made me realize that I am actually undercounting the number of people who stay less than a week. It turns out that my count of total people booked into the jail and released is noticeably lower than the data shown on the Sheriff’s dashboard. The reason is that I miss anyone who comes in after my morning download but then bonds out before I download again the next day. If it looks like this might have a significant impact on any of the questions I’m looking at, I’ll call it out and, where possible, augment the data I have with other sources.

*Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022.

Who is in the Buncombe County Jail?

Before we get into statistics, I want to start by acknowledging that the people who get booked into the Buncombe County Jail are just that: people. They have families and friends, jobs and kids and partners, and they have stories about how they came to be where they are.

It is easy to think of people in jail as “inmates” or “criminals” and thus to separate ourselves from them. It is a false separation. They are part of our community, caught up in a system for which our community is answerable. It is important to always remember that as we talk about the trends and patterns in the system.

Holding that thought, let’s look at who is in the jail as I write this on Monday, June 27, 2022. At about 7:30 AM today there were 466 people held in the jail. Of those, 69 (14.8%) were women and 397 were men (those are the only two designations used in the public data available). In terms of race, 327 (70%) were white and 135 (29%) were Black. The remainder included 3 Native Americans and 1 Asian.

According to the 2020 Census, Black people make up just 6.3% of the County population (11.1% of Asheville only), so they are significantly over-represented in today’s jail population. Men are over-represented as well since they make up just 48% of the population.

Of course, that’s just one day. What happens if we look at the population over time? 

There are two ways we could do that. One is to simply average the daily population over time, as the Sheriff’s dashboard does for the past year. The numbers there are similar – about 30% Black and a little over 12% women (looking at my data from the past six months rather than a single day, I get essentially the same numbers).

An alternative approach is to look at it by individual, specifically, everyone who was booked into the jail so far this year.*  During that period we have 2025 unique individuals who came through the jail.

Starting with gender, there were 1,532 men and 493 women. Interestingly, the percentage of women increases significantly, from 14.8% to 24.3%. 

A parallel increase occurs with white people: in 2022 so far we have had 1,581 white people (78.1%) and 407 Black people (20.1%), nearly a 10% increase in the white percentage of the population.

The difference is because of differing lengths of stay. Once booked, women tend to spend fewer days in jail than men, and white people spend fewer days than Black people. In the next post we will begin digging into those statistics a bit more, but for now it’s important to note that the daily population can give a skewed picture of what’s happening to individual people who show up in the jail.

Which brings me back to my point at the beginning: these are people and it’s important to center that fact even in choosing how to look at the data.

*Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022.

How many people go to jail in Buncombe County?

Daily intake from arrests varies from one day to another, but based on the first six months of 2022, about 15 people on average are booked into the jail every day.

Before the pandemic, the Buncombe County Jail had a total capacity of 604 beds (96 women and 508 men) between the main facility and a lower-security dormitory-style annex. Since the annex was closed in 2020 for safety reasons at the beginning of the pandemic and one of the female dorms was converted to a male, the actual current capacity is now 524 beds: 56 women and 468 men can be housed at any given time [1]. The actual population varies over time, but in 2022 has averaged somewhat under 450. Most of these are pre-trial (about 85%), with a few federal detainees or people serving short sentences (under 90 days).

In the next few posts we’ll look at who gets booked into jail, how long they stay, and what they’re charged with.

For now, suffice it to point out that the vast majority of people arrested and jailed are released pending trial within a few days. That is by design in the first place. Unless there is a strong reason to believe that someone is actively dangerous or a flight risk, there is a strong preference to release people prior to conviction since they are considered innocent until proven guilty.

There is an obvious practical consideration as well. At 15 people per day we would fill the current capacity of the Buncombe County jail about every 5 weeks, for a total of over 2500 people in just the first six months of 2022.

[1] Since the female population has been rising, the female dorm that was converted may transition back – see this January 2022 presentation to the County Commission.

You can find some of these numbers on the Buncombe County Detention Facility Dashboard. Much of the analysis here and in future posts is based on daily early morning downloads of jail data from the Buncombe County Police to Citizen dashboard, starting on January 3, 2022.

The Gravity of Normal

This post is reprinted from The Lab Report, the City of Asheville’s internal data program newsletter.

I manage the data and analytics program for the City of Asheville, but the truth is that I don’t care at all about data or analytics, or even about performance. What I care about is change. The chance to create positive change is what keeps me showing up every day. Perhaps that’s true of you as well.

Protests in Asheville

Change is front and center in our community right now. The reason for that is awful, but it is good that we are looking at our problems and talking about how to address them. There is plenty of anger, but I also sense some hope that we can make progress, that the turmoil of the moment might help make that progress possible.

The last thing I want to do is say anything to erode that hope. But if we are to really succeed in changing things, we need to understand what we are up against.

I heard a story the other day about an interaction in the courthouse. Yellow dots had been placed throughout the courtroom to indicate where people could safely sit and still socially distance. A lawyer at the defense table noticed a yellow dot on a bench just two feet behind her – clearly a violation of the 6-foot standard. She pointed it out to someone nearby, not someone in authority, just another person working in the courtroom that day. The response: “Well, I guess they have to put them somewhere.”

That response has haunted me ever since. It haunts me because it represents the mechanism of the system’s inexorable drive to revert to normal. It wasn’t a declaration that we shouldn’t care about safety, or a refusal to question why people must pointlessly show up each day when nothing can happen with their cases. It was just a normal person’s automatic thought. An automatic thought that carried a powerful set of assumptions about what normal means.

We don’t have to put them somewhere. We can rethink the system. We can question our assumptions and inquire what is really important. We can, but we don’t. We fall prey to the need to just get things back to normal.

“Normal” is the gravity that ceaselessly works against any change to the system, and it works powerfully throughout the system because it works through all of us. The problem is what “normal” actually stands for here. It stands for a system designed to keep people of color at the margins and to create benefits for white people at their expense. It stands for white supremacy [1]. And that system depends, not on the people we think of as white supremacists, but on all of us.

Take policing, since that’s the topic of the day. We all look forward to seeing what Chief Zack and APD will do to transform their culture and regain public trust. Our city, elected officials and the Chief himself have all acknowledged the need for change. Personally I am cheering for my colleagues there.

But their efforts are doomed if they have to do this on their own. Policing operates within a system. It is the same system that leads to our abysmal results in contracting with businesses owned by people of color. It is the same system that leads to our lack of diversity in hiring, and to the inequities in how we engage with our community. Those are ours to change. And if we are to do it, we must understand that the biggest barrier to change is not the resistance of those who disagree.

The biggest barrier is us. We are the system and we will be the gravity that pulls things back [2]. And the way we will do that is through offhand, automatic thoughts and deeds. We just need to get this position filled now. We just need to get this done. We just need to put those stickers somewhere and move on.

So what does any of this have to do with the data program?

My plan for this newsletter was to do an introduction to Google Data Studio. That’s important and I’ll have it out to you soon. But the events in our community and across the country and the world make it important to remember that metrics and charts are irrelevant if they’re not in service to the right questions.

So you can expect to hear as much in this newsletter and in our trainings about asking the right questions as you will about data. Emma Olson [of Culture of Results at the NC Center for Health and Wellness] reminded us in our training last week that questions are the heart of the results-based accountability framework. Questions keep us focused on outcomes, which is important. But questions serve another purpose as well. They help us disrupt the inevitable pull toward the normal that will destroy not just our particular project or program, but everything we’re working toward as a city.

-Eric Jackson

[1] I get that this language may feel inflammatory. If you feel that it is, please reach out. I would be happy to talk about why I use it, why I am convinced that it’s important to use it.

[2] Thanks to Kimberlee Archie for the words she long had in her signature: “The system is working as designed; we are the system; we must deconstruct and transform the system to work for all.” Those words have kept me thinking constantly about the roles we play in creating or resisting change.

Photo Credit: Asheville Citizen-Times, Asheville’s 7th day, biggest protest: ‘This is a lifelong commitment’.

Stories To Carry Us Through

In a conversation recently someone asked how to tell when you’re in a pivotal moment in history. I don’t recall how I responded at the time, but the question has continued to gnaw at me ever since.

What’s bothering me is that there’s a narrative hidden beneath the question, a story about how things change and the part individuals play. Such stories are important because they covertly shape our decisions about whether, when and how to act or speak on issues we care about.

All of us are familiar with the “hero narrative,” which tells us that change happens when an individual shows up at a critical moment and undertakes some particularly courageous act that changes the course of history. In this narrative, for example, civil rights happened because of heroes like Rosa Parks who, tired after a long day, suddenly became fed up with the discrimination and heroically remained seated for her rights. Because of her and Martin Luther King, Jr. and a handful of others who seized the moment and took heroic steps, everything changed.

David LaMotte challenges this narrative in his book, Worldchanging 101. As LaMotte points out, one problem with the narrative is that it is completely wrong. It ignores the years of preparation by hundreds of people, including Rosa Parks, and it misunderstands the quite careful and deliberate choices of time and place. Perhaps more importantly, the hero narrative undermines our sense of agency. It disempowers us because it requires that we wait for just the right moment and then heroically seize it. The result: we do nothing because we have no idea when the moment is and most of us are quite aware that we’re no heroes.

The narrative behind the pivotal moment is related, but also stands on its own. Let’s call it the “ripeness narrative”. It says that there are times that are “ripe” for change and we need to keep our eyes open so we know when to act. Once again, this is actually a very disempowering narrative – it’s the hero narrative without the hero. It again demands that we recognize the “right moment” for action. The subtext, of course, is that action is mostly pointless the rest of the time.

The LGBTQ movement provides an excellent example of how this narrative misses the mark. When same-sex marriage was recognized as legal by the Supreme Court in 2015, to many of us it felt like the change came out of the blue, that a dramatic shift occurred over just a few short years. There clearly had been a pivotal moment in there somewhere!

Gallup poll of attitudes toward same-sex marriage 1997 to present.
Gallup poll of attitudes toward gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults 1987 to present.

But look at the graphs of Gallup polling on attitudes toward gays and lesbians and toward same-sex marriage over time. Yes, something significant happened around 2011: the percentage of people supporting same-sex marriage exceeded that against. But it didn’t happen because of some dramatic reconfiguration of things in 2011. It was simply the crossing point determined by the slopes of the lines. Same-sex marriage saw support increase and opposition decrease fairly steadily over more than a decade, and in general attitudes toward gays and lesbians over more than two.

The real question is what determined the slopes of those lines?

In his recent book, How We Win, George Lakey contrasts the LGBTQ movement’s strategy following the conservative revolution of the 1980s with those of other movements on the left:

When Reagan faced a strike by the air-traffic controllers union, he fired the workers — 11,000 of them. It was a shot heard by all the movements in the United States. Organized labor went on the defensive, and so did other movements: women’s rights, civil rights, school reform, environmental. The goals of those movements changed: to hang on to previously achieved gains …

One big exception stands out in the defensive retreat of the left in the 1980s: the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transexual rights. … [E]ven while some homophobes talked about sending gay men to camps to isolate “the gay disease” of AIDS, the movement stepped up to confront Reagan and the medical-industrial complex.

After winning, LGBTQ people stayed on the offensive, demanding equal marriage, then equality in the military. More recently the push is equal access for trans people to public facilities like bathrooms.

The slopes of those lines were the result of steady efforts over decades to change the attitudes of people and institutions; there never was a pivotal moment. In fact, what appears to be a pivotal moment is a time when taking action is perhaps least important simply because the tipping point has already been reached and it really doesn’t make much difference whether you join in or not. It was probably far more important to pitch in when things looked bleak, as they did in the 1980s. As, in fact, they do now.

Which brings me back to the question that sparked this, how to tell when you’re in a pivotal moment. I suspect the question really being asked is something like: how do I know that my efforts matter?

I am privileged to work every day with amazing people, the questioner among them, people who pour their hearts into work that is very, very hard, and that often feels futile. How are we to keep hold of hope when despair is always tugging, to maintain enthusiasm in the face of repeated frustration? It’s hard and we need something to hang on to that assures us that it’s worth it, that shows us how the day in, day out work we do matters.

In other words, we need a story. It’s part of being human.

Unsurprisingly we tend to grasp at the stories that are close to hand, the ones regularly repeated in novels and in the media, in movies and in marketing. They’re easy stories that help us make sense of reality and see that it’s not just a mess.

In reality, though, reality is a mess. We need stories that somehow acknowledge this, but also give us both hope and a part to play, a part that doesn’t require supernatural abilities or an infallible sense of timing.

There is an instructive controversy happening right now around the New York Times’s 1619 Project, and especially Nikole Hannah-Jones’s opening essay. A group of historians, led by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, submitted a letter to the New York Times challenging the project as having errors “of verifiable fact” and calling on the organization to publish a correction. The editors published the letter together with a detailed rebuttal.

Adam Serwer of the Atlantic explains that the conflict is actually not over facts, but is fundamentally one of competing narratives about American history:

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? …

The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize.

The historians’ position is a version of the “progress narrative,” the idea that things inevitably get better and that right and justice win in the end. The best modern formulation is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. It’s a narrative that offers hope, although it can also be used to excuse individual inaction.

What’s worse, though, is that it can be easily twisted to discourage boldness in challenging the status quo. It is a classic response of white liberals in America to any attempt to really grapple with current-day racism: things are getting better, what is needed is patience, don’t get loud, don’t rock the boat. It is not really logical, but it allows us to avoid facing things that are truly ugly not just about this country’s past, but about its present. In other words, about ourselves.

Hannah-Jones’s counter-narrative provides a fascinating contrast. She doesn’t simply offer a darker vision of the past; her narrative offers a powerful role for those who have been oppressed by that past. She casts black people as the primary force for the development of democracy in America, “the perfecters of this democracy.”

It’s powerful, but is it true?

I think that’s the wrong question. Historical narrative is always created from a subset of the facts and artifacts available. It can be quite useful for understanding how change might have happened. It can illuminate and inspire. On the negative side, it can fail to fit the facts and in that sense be false. But it cannot be objectively true. Historical narratives are like models in economics: simplified versions of reality that try to illuminate the particular mechanisms that may have led to historical outcomes. They can have explanatory power and thus be useful guides to strategy in analogous circumstances, but they remain highly simplified fairy tales compared to the mess of reality.

But Hannah-Jones’ narrative is less an attempt to explain history and more a way to frame that history as bestowing a special role on African Americans. I could easily argue that it’s accurate. I can just as easily argue that it’s seriously incomplete. But if I see it as an inspiration and call to action, perhaps my best response is simply to applaud and then move on to seek my own narrative. I obviously can’t sign up for this one – not only am I not black, I’m a member of the privileged group that has been the source of oppression.

Which brings me back to the question. How do I tell if my work matters?

As should be obvious by now, I don’t know how to answer that question in an absolute sense. All I know is that each of us needs a story that tells us how the world as a whole works, and then places us as individuals within that larger narrative. This essay is an opportunity to try to articulate and share mine and, perhaps, give you some ideas for yours.

Mine draws from the conviction of King and Gandhi that we are called to participate in an essentially spiritual struggle, and that progress in the struggle requires understanding the world as a set of structures and systems that are created and maintained by people. The spiritual call is to dismantle systems and structures that are unjust and to replace them with just ones.

I suspect I differ somewhat from both King and Gandhi in that I’m not confident progress in the large is inevitable, although I hope for it. What my own spirituality tells me, though, is that progress in the small is always possible and that it matters deeply.

Because I personally draw from a Christian tradition, it’s natural for me to think in terms of Jesus’ kingdom of heaven (which he clearly implied was not something far off and after death, but a reality in the midst of our current reality). However, I have no need to impose that frame on anyone else. Another more secular way to put it might be that I see myself as a collaborator in helping my community fulfill its true identity, one that is naturally inclusive and equitable, interconnected and loving.

For me that is not an abstraction, and it is not something that happens at scale. It’s local and concrete. It always connects the systemic and structural with the personal and frames the bureaucratic processes of institutions as interactions in a relationship with individuals and with the community. And that’s a big part of what makes the work sustainable for me. Sometimes I get to see success and that is wonderful. But sometimes all I have is the opportunity to forge a real connection with a neighbor or a fellow worker. And that’s enough to carry me through to struggle again tomorrow.

A Question of Boundaries

I work for the City of Asheville, a formal governmental institution that operates within strictly defined geographical boundaries. It operates within functional boundaries as well, with responsibility for things like streets and garbage, water and zoning, public safety and community spaces.

The City obviously also has a role beyond the areas it strictly controls, such as housing and economic development. And, as the largest municipality in western North Carolina, it has influence outside its formal geographic boundaries as well.

Nevertheless, for the most part, its responsibilities lie within relatively well-defined lines. Which means of course that my job and those of my colleagues at the City are also defined or constrained in important ways by those same lines. This is a perfectly logical and reasonable way to divide up the work, albeit one that is generally confusing and irrelevant to the community we serve.

In fact, it can be worse than irrelevant and confusing. To us working in government the lines are convenient fictions that let us get our jobs done. But they can turn sinister if we begin to actually believe in them.

These artificial boundaries necessarily disrespect the continuity of the lives of those we serve. Our lines of convenience can become real obstacles and barriers for people who have no margin in their lives to handle the extra burden. And however exact the lines between jurisdictions, believing in them obscures the reality that these are organic spaces, spaces with an integrity that we may endanger when we only think in the categories of jurisdiction and control. Perhaps worst of all, artificial boundaries in both space and function create barriers for us in tackling the real complexities of the challenges we face.

Yet we still have to get our work done. How are we supposed to respect the integrity of spaces, the continuity of people’s lives, and the intertwining of multiple dimensions of challenge without violating legitimate restrictions on our actions or becoming completely overwhelmed trying to solve all of every problem?

There are a number of ways to come at that question, but I’m intrigued by one in particular that emerges from two stories I encountered in the last few months.

The most recent arose in a chat with Jim Blanton, the director of our county library system. He mentioned that the libraries have partnered with Homeward Bound to have a nearly full-time resource person work with the homeless community. Libraries are both a popular and a natural access point for resources for the homeless community and so the program makes perfect sense.

But it’s not obvious that a library would look at things that way. A natural boundaried approach might be to think more narrowly about the library’s mission and to assign the responsibility for these patrons elsewhere, to call in the police or some other agency. Instead, the Buncombe County libraries chose to define themselves as a place where all members of the community gain access to resources of all sorts, and then connected with partners who could help them realize that vision for this particular group of patrons.

As it happens, the second story also relates to homelessness. It came up in a conversation with Amy Cantrell, a local pastor and community advocate. A few years ago a woman named Janet Jones died of cold on the streets of Asheville. Amy powerfully described the way the community sat with what had happened, talked about it and about what they could do. They decided first to hold a public funeral. Homelessness is often treated as a public safety issue; they used a public funeral for a woman who died alone on the street to reframe it as a public health emergency.

They didn’t stop there. Rather than sitting in anger and pointing fingers (and as Amy says, “there’s a lot of fingers that could have been pointed and should”), they focused instead on a question: “We are one another’s closest community. What is it that’s within our power to do? How can we change this?” Their answer was the Homeless/Formerly Homeless Street Medic Team which carries out weekly street outreach, crisis preparation, and health fairs. I recently attended a meeting of healthcare providers and nonprofits where the Street Medic Teams were cited as one of the clear successes in community health in our area.

The common element in these two stories is a decision to think beyond lines of responsibility and jurisdiction by asking a simple question: What can we do? What is our part?

It’s easy to come up with objections, of course. For one, local governments, community groups and non-profits are already stretched thin. Doesn’t this just pile more work onto already over-burdened people?

Perhaps. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that both stories are about people finding a creative way to deal with issues that already touched them. The library needed to decide how best to interact with a particular group of library users. The homeless community was asking how to contend with a threat to its own members.

Clearly too this isn’t about taking full responsibility for every problem. In fact, asking “What is our part?” explicitly acknowledges that it is only a part. We are not taking ownership of the whole problem, but are simply exercising agency at the intersection of the problem and our domain. In fact, the act of doing so invites us to ask what other partners might be invited in or notified? The libraries connected with Homeward Bound. The Street Medic teams get training from and coordinate with health services and emergency personnel.

Another objection is that we are somehow giving those responsible a pass. But let’s be clear. Asking the question does not absolve responsible agencies of their responsibility. As Amy puts it, what it does is open up an imaginative space where we can discover truly creative solutions. In both these stories, by locating themselves within the larger system, thinking in terms of networks and spaces and systems, people came up with new solutions that helped address their particular challenges while bringing benefit to the broader community.

For me, perhaps the most challenging objection is that we are essentially forcing those who shouldn’t bear the responsibility in the first place to patch up and prop up a fundamentally broken system. In the case of homelessness, this is true even of the agencies that have jurisdiction. Homelessness is not caused by ineffective homeless assistance programs. Such programs may work well or badly, but they are contending with a problem created outside themselves.

Homelessness is most closely linked with the affordability of housing in the area and the availability of jobs that cover the cost of that housing. Housing costs and employment opportunities result from the interaction of local, state, and federal policy with the decisions of individual buyers and sellers, entrepreneurs, developers and investors. More broadly, it results from the way we choose to organize our society and world and the way we prioritize and approach the issues that arise.

We can’t solve homelessness without engaging all of these dimensions and levels and you can argue that prioritizing efforts like these allows society to avoid doing that.

The most obvious counter-argument is that it may realistically be the best we can do. At least these solutions make a difference in individual lives. Because of the Street Medic team, for example, someone this year or next has a chance to build a life that otherwise they might have lost.

But I think there’s a more important reason to take this perspective.

I wrote last year about rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy, asserting that democracy isn’t about voting or a particular “set of structures and procedures. Democracy is people doing democracy.” But what does that actually mean? I think these stories represent part of what it means: people and organizations claiming and exercising agency in the working of their community as a whole.

In his classic book Democracy in America [1] Alexis de Tocqueville attributes much of what is unique and powerful about American democracy to the peculiar civic conditions of small New England towns where “much artful care has been taken … to … disperse power in order to interest as many people as possible in public affairs.” One effect of such distribution of power is to engender a sense of agency, one reflected in a second uniquely American tendency observed by de Tocqueville:

Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools … Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

While never true of all places, even early in our history, I suspect that both the reality and the mythology of this ethos, this idea that we can and should take our challenges and our opportunities into our own collective hands, rather than wait for a government or powerful individual to do it, are responsible for much of the dynamism of American democracy, a dynamism that I see as born of connection and a sense of agency.

It is a dynamism that has become seriously eroded in our own time.

We can’t simply return to the democracy of early 19th century New England towns, nor to the civic, religious and social community associations that helped carry this ethos through the middle of the twentieth century. We need to find a new way that can work in our twenty-first century reality, one that finds twenty-first century ways to claim agency and forge connections.

In a recent essay [2], Danielle Allen argues that rebuilding democracy requires “bridging ties” that bring ”diverse communities into positive relations while also individually forming personally valuable relationships across boundaries of difference.” I would submit that one of the most effective ways to build such ties, to rebuild social connectivity and the vital accompanying sense of agency is through work on shared challenges. I think the two stories I’ve referenced here offer two of many examples of what that can look like.

It might seem strange that one of the examples I cite is a government entity partnering with a non-profit, not the most innovative connection you might look for. But the choice is deliberate.

For one thing, while organizations can encourage or discourage collaboration, real creative agency within them is a function of individuals, and of course it is only with individuals that the bridging ties Allen talks about can be forged.

Equally importantly, the goal is not to replace formal organizations with grass-roots efforts, but to strengthen the entire ecosystem. Grassroots organizations are a vital part of that ecosystem, but so are governments and non-profits, media and private enterprises. We need to create bridging ties not just between different parts of the community, but between all those communities and the myriad organizations that collectively make our community function.

And that to me is at the heart of what it means to rebuild democracy. Rebuilding democracy means rebuilding its ability to function, rebuilding our ability to face challenges and make decisions in a way that is inclusive and grounded in the experience of every part of our community. And I suspect that accomplishing it is less a matter of policy or political organization than of shifting perspective by shifting the questions we ask. The right simple question at the right time is one of the most powerful tools there is.


  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Library of America, 2004). Originally published in French in 1835 and 1840.
  2. Danielle Allen, ”Toward a Connected Society” in Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society, eds. Earl Lewis, Nancy Cantor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).


It’s hard to escape the incessant drama of the current moment these days, from the assaults on our institutions to the lives damaged or destroyed through incompetence or cruelty. It’s hard to think much beyond the immediate future, the next lawsuit, the next election, hard to think beyond resistance. But we need to. Our democracy is in grave danger, has been in grave danger for much longer than Trump has been president, and will not be fixed by a blue wave, an impeachment or anything else that can happen in the next few weeks, months, probably even years.

Please understand me: I am not saying that resistance is not necessary, that calling senators, filing lawsuits, protesting, organizing, registering people, voting and getting others out to vote aren’t vital things to be doing right now. They are.

But we need to do more than resist. We need to build or, rather, rebuild. We need to rebuild and reinvent a democracy that can withstand the assaults made possible by modern technology, modern media, and the erosion of the norms that kept us more or less in the road for a couple of centuries. A road that bypassed far too many of us, of course, which is something else our rebuilt democracy must address this time.

But we are in crisis and it is so tempting to prioritize resistance, to focus on stopping the attack, to just get through this crisis before we try to build.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. These attacks are not independent of the social and political structures that allow the attackers to operate. In fact, the attackers themselves are arguably as much a consequence of our power structure and dynamics as a cause of them. Even if we manage to win against those currently in power, we will discover that others are waiting in the wings to take advantage of those same structures, that we will have a new set of powerful people suddenly reluctant to give up the tools that allow them to maintain that power. It will likely be done by good people with the best of intentions in the name of expediency, but it will be done and things will not be better.

We need to look beyond resistance to what Mahatma Gandhi called constructive program [1]. I think of it simply as building the infrastructure of a just democracy.

While Gandhi wrote far less about constructive program than he did about nonviolent resistance, he spoke of it often and frequently implied that it was the more vital of the two. He knew that when you seek to overthrow an oppressive regime, if you do nothing to change its supporting structures, success just means swapping one set of oppressors for another.

Constructive program is about building new structures that can replace those of the current oppressive regime, structures that support justice in the same way that the current ones support injustice. I believe that this, rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy, is one of our most important tasks right now.

By “infrastructure” I don’t mean voting machines or elections or money in politics. I mean everything that supports our ability to function as a democracy. That includes the government, but it also includes local and national media, advocacy organizations large and small, community groups, social media and other forms of civic activity. It includes the policies and technologies that regulate and support it all. Most vitally, it includes our habits and norms, all the things that govern how we actually practice democracy. The rebuilding must encompass all of this together because it is all of this, as a system, not just one or another individual thing, that is broken today.

What is Democracy?

If we are going to rebuild democracy, we should probably be sure we know just what it is we are trying to build. We do know what democracy is, don’t we? You would think so, after millennia of thinking and writing, experimenting with and arguing about whether and how democracy does, can or should work. We must know by now.

We know where to go for things that are known: let’s take a look at what Wikipedia has to say:

According to American political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens, and a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

I found myself arguing already at the first element.

My first reaction on reading Diamond’s definition was to dismiss it entirely and start over. On reflection, though, it’s not completely wrong. The elements are in the wrong order, and means get confounded with ends, but it seems fixable. Here is how I would reformulate it.

Democracy consists of four key elements:

  1. Rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to everyone.
  2. Protection of the human rights of everyone.
  3. A political system that gives effective voice and representation to everyone in collective decision-making.
  4. The active participation of the people in politics and civic life.

The changes aren’t large, but I think they are significant.

First, I’ve reordered the elements because I think they build on one another: each element is only feasible if it can assume those that come before. The first two, for example, are not themselves democracy, but they provide a vital foundation for it. Take rule of law. As soon as certain groups get to be exempted from some rules, we have laid the foundation for privileging the rights, voice or representation of one class over another. Similarly with human rights — ensuring that everyone without exception enjoys a certain basic set of rights puts critical limits on what the political system can do. Without those limits, the system eventually loses legitimacy for those whose rights are violated and breaks down.

I have also removed restrictions to “citizens.” There has long been a battle about whether the privileges and duties of democracy apply to everyone or just to a “deserving” subset. For me democracy must incorporate everyone who lives in our community, period. That is not to say that every mechanism is open to every person — it’s reasonable to restrict voting in elections to citizens, for example — but I believe the system itself must include ways to develop the habits of democracy for everyone in the community. More on that below.

The third significant change I’ve made is in the definition of the central element, the political system itself. To my mind, Diamond’s restriction of the role of the political system to “choosing and replacing the government through … elections” ignores almost everything that makes a democracy actually work. It focuses on one of the means and completely ignores the end, the very purpose of democracy. To me “rule of the people” has to be about giving the people voice and representation in the critical decisions that shape their community’s future.

With those changes, the definition seems to me a workable starting set of principles for a just democracy. All that remains is to figure out how to build one.

Democracy is a Doing

For me the clue is in the last element, the assertion that democracy requires the “active participation of the people in politics and civic life.” That statement forces a shift of focus from a static “system” to something more dynamic and organic. Democracy isn’t a set of structures and procedures. Democracy is people doing democracy — anything else is just a shell.

I like the way a friend put it:

“Democracy is a context in which we learn how to be citizens as well as a context in which we get things done.” — Daniel O. Snyder [2]

I believe we have largely lost this habit. To gain a democracy that is more than a shell, more than a perk for the privileged, we need to get it back, to create it anew, this time for all the people.

We can’t do this on the national level. While I have struggled to formulate why, that has been clear to me since I embarked on this work. Certainly we can share learning and resources, but the work itself is something we can only do locally. We must rebuild the habits of democracy from the ground up, person by person and community by community.

That’s the reason I get excited about Code for America brigades, local volunteer groups that use their tech and data skills to make their communities and local governments better. These and similar groups are building new habits of democracy. In a recent conversation, Denice Ross of New America Foundation called brigades a kind of “permanent civic infrastructure” in a local community. I think that is exactly right and this essay tries to articulate why that infrastructure is so important. Code for America brigades won’t save the day, of course, but they are one tiny, hopeful seed for the kind of communities I believe we can grow over the next few decades.

I began work on this post months ago and until the last few days still had no idea what it really wanted to be. It turns out to be a kind of compass I’ve built for myself, to keep myself on the path, a formulation of the principles that underlie and guide the work I feel called to do.

I hope too it can serve others as a call to action and as a reminder, both in the heat of the fight and in the dark of inevitable times of despair, that what we are doing is much more than resistance. We are laying the foundations of a new and better democracy.


  1. While Gandhi frequently referred to constructive program, the only work specifically devoted to the topic was a short pamphlet written in 1941. With its focus on practices that were specific to the time and place and Gandhi’s spirituality — things like prohibition, personal celibacy, spinning of thread, the use of locally-made cloth, use of provincial languages, and integration of untouchables — it has not seemed particularly relevant to most practitioners of his better known non-violent program. However, the specific practices arise from underlying principles that very much apply to other places and times. I am deeply grateful to Dan Snyder (see next note) for his wisdom about this, and to the thesis of Prof. Allwyn Tellis.
  2. Dan Snyder is a pastoral psychotherapist in Black Mountain, NC; he has also been a peace studies teacher and nonviolence trainer, and is the author of Quaker Witness as Sacrament, published by Pendle Hill. Conversations with Dan, as therapist, spiritual director and friend, have been a rich source of inspiration for my work and for my life.