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