Recap: State of Black Asheville

Some 300 people gathered at UNC-Asheville’s Highsmith University Union today for the second annual State of Black Asheville Forum, a daylong event featuring panel discussions about blacks’ experiences in education, employment, law enforcement and health care in Asheville. The event was started last year by UNCA political science professor Dwight Mullen, who guided students in conducting research for the forum.

During his opening statements, Mullen spoke about Black History Month. “So many communities will gather to look at the stars of black history,” he said. “This is a time for us to look at ourselves.” Engaging in honest dialogue about the issues facing the black population, he emphasized, is half the battle, and change can’t be expected to happen overnight. “But I promise you, good will come of it. We’re dealing with truth.”

The challenges facing Asheville’s African-American population emerged in a series of presentations framed by statistics. In the employment segment, it was reported that 32 percent of Asheville’s black residents are living below the poverty line. The median household income for Asheville’s black families is $22,601, according to UNCA student Rachel Williams, compared with $48,532 for white families. Meanwhile, Allen Johnson, superintendent of Asheville City Schools, noted that there has been an overall decline in enrollment, which he attributed to a rise in the local cost of living. “We’re finding that the cost of housing is so great, it’s becoming more unaffordable for families to live in Asheville,” he said.

In Asheville City Schools, during the 2005-06 school year, there were 195 suspension incidents involving white students and 1,129 involving black students, reported UNCA senior and political science major Jason Tuell. Meanwhile, he noted, at Asheville High School, 90 percent of students scoring in the top 50 percent are Caucasian. But thanks to a tutoring program in Asheville City Schools called Advancement Via Individual Determination (more commonly known as AVID), some African-American students are making strides in academic achievement, reported UNCA senior Zofia Wleklinski. Gene Bell, chair of the Asheville City Board of Education, spoke about “falling asleep at the switch,” and encouraged community members to become involved in the lives of at-risk youth. “We need to start embracing people, rather than alienating them,” he said.

During the law-enforcement presentation, UNCA student Courtney Langston — there as a proxy for her classmate, David Cox, who was ill — waged some serious criticism against the Asheville Police Department. As Police Chief Bill Hogan looked on, Langston delivered a power-point presentation highlighting a need for greater transparency. She displayed photos of Antoine Peterson and Lacy Pickens, two African-American men who were fatally shot by Asheville police officers, and said the outcome of internal investigations resulting from those incidents were never released to the public. Finally, she criticized an under-representation of African-Americans in the city’s police force.

In response, Chief Hogan called police recruiting a “community responsibility,” saying that African-American men and women who opt to join the police force often do so courageously and despite the disapproval of their families and friends. As to the need for greater transparency, he said the APD is prohibited, by law, from sharing personnel records such as the results of internal investigations. Lieut. Randy Sorrells of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department spoke in the place of Sheriff Van Duncan, who had the flu and could not attend. “We are a culture,” Sorrells said of local law enforcement. “And changing a culture is not an easy task.” But he assured the audience that major advancements have been made in terms of a willingness to establish more trust between local law enforcement and the community.

During break-out sessions, participants came together to discuss the various areas in greater detail. The discussion groups put law-enforcement professionals into direct communication with local activists advocating for police oversight, and elected officials spoke with black community leaders.

Also in attendance were Asheville City Council members Robin Cape, Holly Jones and Jan Davis, as well as Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy. A few local bloggers were there to offer quick coverage, including Clare Hanrahan, who live-blogged the event, as did Scrutiny Hooligans.

— Rebecca Bowe, contributing editor


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8 thoughts on “Recap: State of Black Asheville

  1. Billy P Patton

    Fact is not enough blacks go onto college, so they don’t make as much money. Nowadays there is the opportunity, so it is up to black folks to take advantage of these opportunities. That’s the message of Bill Cosby and I agree. Black folks, take advantage of the opportunities!

    One really good thing about Asheville is that black and white folks get along really well. Most of us smile and say good morning to each other. That’s special and it is Southern culture at it’s best. No color barrier. That isn’t the case in many parts of the US. It’s something Asheville can be proud of. Martin Luther King would be happy to see how well the races get along here. His dream has come true.

  2. Gordon Smith

    Here are some facts for you, Billy. Maybe you’re unaware of the racial barriers that still exist:

    Health and health care disparities:

    Incarceration disparities:
    Although blacks account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, 44 percent of all prisoners in the United States are black.

    Education disparities:

    We’re on the right track, Billy, but there’s a lot of work yet to be done to truly fulfill Dr. King’s dream.

  3. Billy P Patton

    Gordon, you are as ignorant as you are tied to your desire to keep the old racial victimization going. You must be blind to not see the good relations here between black and white. Of course you want to pretend like there is a big problem so you liberals at can demogauge for the black vote. Gordon, ever think of packing your carpetbag and heading back home?

  4. Gordon Smith


    I didn’t say people weren’t saying hello to each other in the parking lots of Asheville. I’m saying that there remains enormous racial disparities in education, health care, and incarceration. This is not disputable.

    To deny this is to disrespect the civil rights struggle that continues.

  5. Erin

    Billy, the fact that you quickly jumped the defensive by calling Gordon ignorant for a mere comment causes one to question the integrity of your statements. I don’t believe you are in a place to say that all Dr. King’s dreams have come true.

  6. travelah

    Gordon Smith,
    Perhaps you are an advocate of affirmative action to deal with incarceration as well?

  7. well, i´m black, an woman, and i moved to asheville… guess what… Billy is right!

    I´m german, well, half american, but growing up in germany and never learned english before 1 jear and 10 month sorry my misspellings…

    what i, the german black american, or is that now the black german american… holey cow… i´m just an human being, no?

    if we black people do not understand that we have the key for our own success in our own pocket, than we haved missed something.

    it is time that the white people have not to make the way even for us!

    i where growing up as only black cjild in town, as only black kid in school… guess what, it was worse and bader than bad… BUT i understood pretty early that nobody will help me. because there where nobody.
    i did not grow up with the black daddy, i where growing up in 16 orphanages… no support, no understanding, BUT i do not need, like no black people need that somebody or an society feels sorry for them, for us.

    asheville is an pretty nice place, even…gosh, i wonder where they are all, the black ones, does not seems to be many living in asheville…

    people are friendly and open minded, at least if we black ones understand that we have to help our kids finding the key of an better life in their own pocket!

  8. contentpersephone

    this conversation pretty much goes to the two extremes – and I find myself somewhere in the middle.

    gordon- the facts that you have provided are pretty much indisputable. Black Americans have a much tougher time of it in this country in terms of eduction, (thus) income, and also potential and actual incarceration.

    At the same time, FireHazard is also correct in that most Ashevillians, at least on the face of it, are not particularly prejudiced (and don’t see themselves as such) these days. A reasonable education and work ethic would do much to solve many of the problems of Asheville’s minorities.

    This is one of the toughest issues facing contemporary Americans, and I somehow doubt that we will find answers in a blog.

    Still, I find it a more than worthwhile discussion and feel somehow cheated that more voices have not participated here…..

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