Some Brookhaven residents believe a “racial caste system” exists in their community, according to small group conversations had during a Feb. 18 Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission meeting.

The commission was established in September to address issues of diversity and race in Brookhaven following months of protests against racial injustice and police brutality. The commission is charged with reviewing the city’s vision and mission statement, and with recommending improvements to city practices of hiring and retention, procurement and contracting, and policing. 

In the Feb. 18 meeting, conversation centered around  “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” a book by journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Participants were asked to consider whether they thought a racial caste system exists in Brookhaven. Wilkerson has defined a caste system as an artificial system used to determine an individual’s standing in society. Race is used as a metric to determine someone’s place in the system, she said in an interview with NPR.

The commission was asked to discuss how the SJREC can acknowledge the racial caste system when considering recommendations for the city. The commission broke out into private sessions that were not viewable on Facebook Live before rejoining to recap their discussion to the entire group. 

Most groups agreed that a racial caste system does exist in Brookhaven. Commissioner Monique Hudson said her group discussed that where people live can be an indicator of that hierarchical system.

“Different racial and ethnic groups are living in different, isolated areas in the city,” Hudson said. “It’s not diverse in each and every community. We see that, and we also see it as it relates to economics — the haves and the have-nots, who has more money, or who can afford to live in certain areas.”

The single group that was unsure about the existence of a racial caste system in Brookhaven still pointed to inequities in parts of the city.

“The majority of our group was unsure whether we actually thought Brookhaven had a racial caste system,” said Commissioner Kathy Wells. “But most of us spoke to the fact that the inequities are obvious compared to the Peachtree Road side of Brookhaven and the Buford Highway Corridor.”

Much of Brookhaven’s Hispanic population — 30%, according to demographic data from the city — lives in the Buford Highway area. Wells said her group discussed the opportunity for the commission to support businesses on Buford Highway, particularly restaurants, in an effort to encourage those outside of that community to visit.

One commissioner discussed the importance of first acknowledging societal norms and the dominant culture those norms may stem from. 

“Even as we’re on this commission and we think about what’s right and what’s wrong, or what’s acceptable – what’s our measurement? Based on what?” said Commissioner Conni Todd. 

Commissioner Conni Todd speaks at the Feb. 18 Brookhaven Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission meeting.

Todd said her group discussed the possibility of the commission coming up with its own set of norms to govern interaction during meetings so no voice gets lost in the fray. 

“Even as we interact and engage, do we want to have some commission norms of how we engage in conflict? So that we can come up with the best ideas,” Todd said. “How do we ensure that, so that we don’t have a quiet voice that has a great idea that never gets put to the commission.”

Most groups stressed the importance of including the broader public in the discussions, and proactively reaching out to make sure the commission’s recommendations work for everyone.

“We’re just a representation of the broader community,” Todd said. “We don’t want to operate in a vacuum. So how do we incorporate opportunities to invite other voices in?”

The SJREC meets on the third Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. The next meeting will be on March 18. Interested residents can learn more about how to join the meetings here. To be involved in the breakout room discussions, participants will have to join through Zoom and not Facebook.