Stroll down the east side of Biltmore Avenue from Pack Square and you’ll soon encounter the Fine Arts Theatre. Perhaps you’ll go in, watch a movie, go home. Maybe you’ll discuss its themes and mise en scène, or dismiss it as pretentious nonsense. But odds are you won’t even have noticed the door.
It’s inconspicuous, hidden in plain view to the left of the main entrance. There’s no knob, and it’s painted the same color as the alcove it sits in. On the right is a small ticket window, long since fallen out of use. These days it’s just the theater’s emergency exit.
“That was the entrance black people had to use during segregation,” says Frank Castelblanco of MAHEC. It’s late in the evening, and the WNC Diversity Engagement Coalition’s social at Pack’s Tavern is winding down. A group of concerned residents have been discussing ways to create and foster a more diverse community and workforce. Now only a few stragglers remain.
“Yep,” says Castelblanco. “It leads to the upstairs seating area.”
“Shoot, I had to use it,” says Jacquelyn Hallum of MAHEC, absently pushing a chicken wing around her plate with a fork. “They used to call it the peanut gallery.”
“You had to use the … uh … African-American entrance?” I ask.
Hallum howls with laughter. “I don’t know about an African-American entrance. I had to use the Negro entrance, though.”
The exclusionary history of Asheville is not only long and complex: It’s still with us. Sure, it’s mostly hidden, but not out of any sinister motive — in the 21st century, our attention is simply elsewhere. In a city that prides itself on being progressive, the people gathered here (including representatives from six of the county’s biggest employers) believe a Diversity Engagement Coalition is very much needed. And it’s curious that no one seems to know about that door.
“Racism still persists,” says Deborah Miles, executive director of The Center for Diversity Education at UNC Asheville. “Political correctness hasn’t solved our biases: It’s just pulled a veil over them, made them private. We haven’t dealt with the biases, just hidden them; and that means people act on those unconscious biases. But many people just don’t know: They don’t realize. Once you’re aware, there are remedies.”
Institutional racism runs on systemic paradigms, unintentional biases and subtle underpinnings that are often invisible to those not on the receiving end. In the workplace, it manifests itself in things like employee morale and retention, basic hiring percentages, promotional opportunities and the overall work environment.
And in attempting to root out those entrenched practices, the Diversity Engagement Coalition is wrestling with the region’s very nature and history. Asheville and Buncombe County, after all, are part of the South. And as long as there’s been a Buncombe County, it’s been overwhelmingly white. In 2010, the breakdown was 87.4 percent white, 6.4 percent black or African-American, 6 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 1 percent Asian, according to that year’s census. (Editor’s note: These are the terms the U.S. Census Bureau uses; for simplicity’s sake, we’ll use African-American and Latino in the statistics cited in the remainder of this article. All county figures include Asheville.)
Those percentages are below the national averages for metropolitan areas, notes coalition co-founder Lisa Eby, who works for the Buncombe County Health and Human Services Department. There are multiple reasons for this disparity, but the numbers speak for themselves.
Based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates covering 2008-12, 35.6 percent of Latino households in the county have total incomes less than $25,000 per year (a household is defined as everyone living within a single dwelling, regardless of whether they’re related). For African-Americans, it’s 48 percent; for white householders, 25.3 percent.
Constrict the parameters, and the situation worsens: Roughly one in five African-American-led households in Buncombe County lives on less than $10,000 per year. The number for white-led households is 6.7 percent.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that the black population of this overwhelmingly white area is declining. Why stay in a place with such racially skewed poverty numbers — and a cost of living comparable to Charlotte’s?
The 1990 census found 12,207 African-Americans living in Asheville (19.9 percent of the population). Twenty years later, there were 11,134 (13 percent). The five-year American Community Survey estimate is 10,413. A similar picture emerges in Buncombe County, whose African-American population dropped from 7.5 percent to 6.4 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Creating critical mass
It started with an April 25, 2013, conference titled “Realizing the Benefits of a Diverse and Inclusive Workforce.” More than 50 organizations participated, says Eby, and after the event (which was sponsored by the city, county and UNC Asheville), “We had so much momentum, but we didn’t want it to be this thing where we just listened and went home. We thought about what we could do to make a real difference.”
So they reached out to leaders at other key local institutions: A-B Tech, MAHEC and Mission Health.
“The anchor institutions are the big dogs,” notes Miles. “They set the structure; you have to have them on your side.” Together, these six entities employ some 15,000 people.
“They wanted to see if we could create a critical mass with our efforts,” says Eby. “Bringing underrepresented minority professionals across our institutions as well as human resources representatives and senior leaders, and start a conversation that would lead to efforts supporting greater diversity.”
The urban renewal efforts of the ’60s and ’70s fractured local black communities, which have yet to recover. In the Latino community, many are relatively recent arrivals who face a language barrier, producing similar isolation and fragmentation. The Census Bureau’s current estimated income averages for Buncombe County show both communities seriously lagging behind the white population: African-Americans, $15,584; Latinos, $13,992; whites, $27,441.
It would be easy to blame this glaring disparity on individual employers’ prejudicial policies. But in a county with nearly 250,000 people, no single organization is big enough to have such a pervasive impact. Taken together, however, the area’s many institutions and employers form a systemic structure that’s invested with the full weight of local history and policy.
Two employment categories in the five-year census estimates appear to encompass most white-collar professions: “management, business, science and arts occupations” and “sales and office occupations.” Yet even combining them, only 29.46 percent of employed Latinos in the county work in such occupations. For African-Americans, it’s 43 percent; for whites, 62.4 percent. Those percentages haven’t changed significantly since the 1990 census.
In the wake of the April conference, coalition members started meeting periodically last summer, brainstorming and exchanging ideas as they gradually zeroed in on three prime targets: institutional practices, professional development and networking.
The first two directly concern the workplace, and one of the group’s first big steps is its Professional Development Program, an eight-week series of free workshops led by empowerment expert Michele Ashley (see box, “Workforce Diversity”).
“The purpose of the program,” says the New York native, “is to provide training, coaching, tools and tips to enhance people’s workplace experience and help navigate the corporate landscape for better chances at advancement.”
The classes cover a variety of topics, using a combination of coaching, workshops, role-playing and open discussions.
“It is not,” stresses Ashley, “a breeding ground to vent or a soapbox: It’s a place for people to get the help they need to better their landscape.”
The first workshop was held April 24, but missing that one doesn’t disqualify people from attending future sessions. “The more, the merrier,” says Ashley, “and the more we have to throw in the pot. Asheville is a special place, and with a diverse workforce, Asheville is who wins.”
Education and diversity
Nationwide, one of the biggest hurdles minorities face is lack of education, and that’s true here too: Only 12.4 percent of African-Americans in the county possess a bachelor’s degree. For Latinos, it’s 14.6 percent; for whites, 34.2 percent. One in five African-Americans age 25 and over, and two in five Latinos, lack a high school diploma, compared with one in 10 whites.
Those numbers don’t exist in a vacuum. Without a diploma, one is much less likely to hold a white-collar job or to earn the higher wages they typically pay. According to the five-year census estimates, 40 percent of African-Americans and Latinos in the county live in poverty — nearly three times the number for whites (14.8 percent).
Education alone is not the answer, but it’s unquestionably a critical factor, and both UNC Asheville and A-B Tech have unique roles to play in growing a diverse workforce. The university, for example, recently received a five-year grant to implement AVID for Higher Education services and faculty training, beginning this fall.
“It’s a support structure,” Miles explains. “Students whose families have been to college share all kinds of information and encouragement about things like deadlines, essays, application fees, study abroad, dorm life expectations, resiliency and other aspects of college life.”
Institutional culture, particularly diversity or the lack of it, is also crucial.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Miles. “Humans norm their behavior after those they see around them. A recent study by Catherine Riegle-Crumb from the University of Texas found that girls are more likely to take high school physics if they see women in their communities working in science, technology, engineering and math. The same holds true for African-Americans and Latinos.”
As the county’s African-American population has decreased, other minority communities have expanded dramatically. The Latino population has increased by more than 600 percent since 1990; the Asian population grew by almost 36 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Each of these communities faces its own unique challenges. Latinos in particular, says Sarah Nuñez, come from many different countries, making it even harder to foster a sense of connection with the broader Asheville community. “Not everybody is from Mexico, and just because you speak Spanish doesn’t necessarily mean much,” the diversity and management consultant explains. “Asheville is populated by Spanish speakers from completely different cultures.”
In the 2010 census, 14,254 Buncombe County residents identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino; 62 percent of them were from Mexico. That means the remaining 38 percent came from other places. Due to its geographic and political isolation, for example, Cuba has developed a dialect that’s famously difficult for even other Spanish speakers to understand.
“To reach these people,” notes Nuñez, who co-founded a Latino-oriented community service organization CHIVA TOP, “We have to understand their different cultures. That requires networking.”
Which brings us to the third of the coaliton’s three focal areas. Eby hopes to have the website up and running by early May; the organization is also on Facebook.
“The social group will network and create opportunities,” explains Castelblanco, a Center for Diversity Education board member. “One idea is creating a black film festival in Asheville and having the group lead the initiative, so participants get firsthand experience in creating a program and building relationships outside their jobs. Another suggestion was a black Asheville tour highlighting historical events such as our civil rights movement, the gentrification of the south side, and the hospital that took care of blacks.”
In late March, the coalition co-hosted a mixer with Date My City, which sponsors multiracial arts-and-culture activities in downtown Asheville. “We’re going to continuously assist area minorities in fostering a stronger sense of belonging,” says founder Sheneika Smith. “Date My City will stand as an ongoing partner with the DEC as well as other organizations, projects and initiatives that serve people of color.”
Ultimately, says Miles, the goal is to look beyond current residents: “This city gets 9 million visitors a year. We can build a base on that.”
As Nuñez puts it: “We are going to work to get different people and agencies to move to Asheville, but it takes time. We’re hoping to see big changes in the next 10 to 20 years — 10 if optimistic.”
Changing racism, says Hallum, “is like losing weight. It wasn’t a six-week binge that got you there: It was a lifelong accumulation of environment and decisions. To permanently change it, you have to look at every part of your life and re-evaluate.”
The door by the Fine Arts Theatre is still there, visible to anyone who has a mind to find it; its purpose still exists in living memory. The challenge lies simply in looking — an activity, says Miles, that’s of the utmost importance for the region.
“In 30 years,” she notes, “the landscape of this nation will be 48 percent white and 52 percent people of color. If we maintain a dominant culture like we have now, we’re going to face some real problems. Seventy percent of all people get jobs through personal relationships. We have to extend that pipeline in all directions.”
In the end, coalition members maintain, it’s up to individuals to recognize not only our community’s value but also the structural injustices built into it. It’s a tough specter to face, but the only way all of us can thrive in the coming decades is if everyone has a stake in the community.
“We have to get everyone involved,” says Castelblanco. “We don’t see if we’re not really connected. We have the opportunity to make this history seen; we have the opportunity to grow a sustainable community. But we all have to know that door is there.”
Freelance writer Cameron Huntley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.