Like most Americans, Asheville residents are still confused about race, with unhealed wounds and much embarrassment. But on April 30, 75 local groups addressed the issue head on by taking part in the YWCA of Asheville's Stand Against Racism.
I was particularly impressed with the conversation that took place at MAHEC, where UNCA political-science professor Dwight Mullen gave a "State of Black Asheville" address to an audience that was about one-third African-American. While acknowledging that considerable attention has been paid to the disparities in education, health care and employment, he also called for a great deal more effort to eliminate systemic racism. Audience members agreed, citing the many Asheville residents forced to give up their homes and community during urban renewal in the 1960s.
When there's a 50 percent spread in black and white students' performance in end-of-grade testing in the Asheville City Schools, something isn't right. When the mortality rate for babies born to black mothers in the richest country in the world is similar to the rate in underdeveloped nations, something isn't right. When the unemployment rate for African-American teens is more than 40 percent, something isn't right. And when African-Americans account for 22 percent of the state's population but 64 percent of its prisoners, we are seeing the effects of a systemic racism that denies equal opportunity.
Despite all this, there is a great deal of good intention to heal racism here in Asheville. Asheville Green Opportunities is working to train young men who can't find work so they can qualify for well-paying green jobs. This group has figured out that they have to pay the young men to keep them in the program and give them something concrete and useful to do. The Asheville City Schools have made a significant effort to ensure that young people come away from their schooling with the knowledge they need. At the MAHEC session, School Success Coordinator Tanya Presha spoke eloquently about how her program addresses students' need for financial knowledge to help them navigate the world beyond school. The city schools' contribution to Stand Against Racism was a "Graduation Awareness Day."
Other groups used the Stand Against Racism to educate their own staff. For example, Community Foundation of Western North Carolina staffers read an essay by Peggy McIntosh titled "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." They had a chance to discuss the implications of the subtle racism that contributes to a feeling among African-Americans that they're second-class citizens. This same unconscious racism is what enables people to say Barack Obama "doesn't look like an American." In fact, a lot of African-Americans have deeper roots in this country than many whites (including me). My father was an immigrant, and my mother's family came here from Europe only one generation back. So which of us "looks more like an American"?
Although many other organizations participated in other ways – putting up signs, wearing buttons proclaiming "racism hurts everyone" and signing pledges – even they faced the possibility of pushback by people in this community who feel threatened by the idea of equality for all. We see so much resentment today directed toward "illegal immigrants." Yet the objections one hears are not about the Europeans who've overstayed their visas but about the people of color who can be profiled as looking "different." Different from whom? Different how?
Standing up against racism is a tricky business because of the people who are more comfortable standing up FOR racism. When we make our position clear, it can be uncomfortable, cause conflict and make us face things we don't necessarily want to look at. I honor all those who stood together with the YWCA of Asheville to proclaim that racism is simply unacceptable in this community.
Asheville resident Kathryn Liss was the YWCA's volunteer coordinator for the Stand Against Racism and serves on the board of Building Bridges of Asheville.
A lot of African-Americans have deeper roots in this country than many whites (including me).