Letter: Asheville has long history of institutional racism

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Your report on hunger, inequality and food [“Legacy of Loss,” July 19, Xpress] has motivated me to send Mountain Xpress this letter. Asheville has a long history of institutional racism, both in hiring and in city government. This has not changed very much since the city moved Stephens-Lee High School together with Asheville High in 1969 and we had a riot at Asheville High.

To point out that, for example, the Asheville Fire Department is all-white and that it is very hard to find or see anyone working or eating in all the downtown and most West Asheville businesses who is not white is not racist. It is just a fact that shows very little has changed here since I was co-captain of the first integrated Asheville High football team and learned much about how Asheville has stacked the deck against nonwhites, and frankly that has not changed nearly as much as it should have over the years.

If we ever want this to change, and if we ever want children who are growing up in Pisgah View Apartments or the other city housing projects, who are mostly nonwhite, to have a chance to get out of the projects and own their own homes and have an equal chance at getting jobs in all the new upscale hotels, restaurants, bars and the Asheville Fire Department, we have to talk about it and acknowledge it is a longtime problem and a fact based in historical reality here.

Because of Trump and Republican proposals to drastically cut funding for EBT (food stamps), hungry families, especially children, will be suffering a lot more next year.

— John Penley

Editor’s note: Xpress contacted the city, and Asheville Fire Department public information officer Kelley Klope provided statistics showing that 3.5 percent of the AFD’s 260 staff members are black (nationwide, that figure was 8.4 percent in 2015). In addition, Klope noted: “The city of Asheville Fire Department includes diversity as one of our core values and has worked aggressively to maximize inclusion in our workforce. We have actively engaged in five different diversity initiatives that have proven very successful. These initiatives have been used as a model in our region and have increased the percentage of nonwhite male applicants for AFD from 8 percent in 2010 to 23 percent in 2016. We are anticipating an even more diverse applicant pool in our current hiring process. We also have twice the percentage of nonwhite males in top leadership roles than in our entire department, which is helping our diversity and inclusion efforts tremendously.”

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35 thoughts on “Letter: Asheville has long history of institutional racism

  1. Drew

    The term “institutional racism” means that there are laws on the books that discriminate based on race, which is simply untrue in Asheville, or anywhere else in the US for that matter. The only exception to this would probably be affirmative action laws which usually benefit racial minorities. Sure some individuals are bigoted, but there isn’t much you can do about that.

    • Phil Williams

      Drew, I reckon some folks figure it must be the “Shadow of the Confederacy” in the form of the Dixie Highway marker at the foot of the Vance Monument? Or perhaps the monument itself being the “Axis of Evil” whose vibe is holding people back even now, in the 21st Century? Institutional racism did exist throughout the nation at one time, and the impact still resonates in some places, but I agree with you in that I don’t think Asheville is the best modern-day example.

    • luther blissett

      That’s just plain wrong. Institutional racism means that racism persists within institutional structures and culture, not simply “laws on the books.” Institutions and organizations have a tendency to self-replicate unless there is external influence to change.

      For example: police and fire services in northern cities were historically institutions where “white ethnic” Americans (Irish, Polish, etc.) could advance in spite of discrimination against Catholic immigrants in other areas. However, this created an institutional culture more sympathetic towards the groups represented in its
      own numbers, and less sympathetic towards groups without that representation.

      It goes without saying that Asheville and southern Appalachia have a different history, but there are plenty of institutions that are the way they are because that’s the way they’ve been, not necessarily because that’s the way they should be.

      • Phil Williams

        Mr. Blissett, My question is, then, where are blacks or other races not allowed to go – anywhere in Asheville? I am sure that there are still some clubs and communities that exclude people based on wealth – in which case race is probably largely coincidental. You pointed out in an earlier thread that there are actually a few black people living in Biltmore Forest now up from 0 not so long ago – are they homeowners there, or are they there as “the help” for Mr. and Mrs. Gottrocks?

        I know that for a good part of the 60’s thru the 80’s there were unwritten “rules” and invisible walls and fences in certain places – but nowhere that I know of where a person of color cannot visit, cannot shop, cannot eat – anywhere in Asheville in the present time. Conversely, there are some neighborhoods, streets and establishments where nobody but the residents or the police willingly visit – or is welcome.

        I admit that, just because I don’t personally witness it does not mean that it does not exist. I am sure that there is a lot of subtle racism among individuals and families, but not so much in businesses or employers or institutions like the City and County government, as Mr. Penley claims. I can say with certainty that it is nothing like it used to be within my own lifetime.

        As for employment in the City and County government & services, my observation has been that full-time positions don’t open up very often, and when they do, the line of applicants is a mile long. Has anyone gathered any data on how many applicants of what races have applied for Police, Fire Dept, and other City/County jobs versus how many have been hired? Mr. Penley points out his figures on how many black firemen he thinks there aren’t but, he does not mention a figure for how many qualified black applicants applied for openings and weren’t hired.

        • luther blissett

          If you’re arguing that the relationship of wealth and race is “largely coincidental” then perhaps you’re asking the wrong question, or seeking for answers in the wrong place. It shouldn’t be controversial — even to the usual suspects — that Asheville’s wealth is mostly either a) long-held and tied to local property and business; or b) brought in from elsewhere, and that it’s easier for someone to show up with a pile of money and lots of free time and quickly become part of the city’s establishment than to bootstrap one’s way up. And yes, this applies to lots of nice polite liberals who spend more time at Whole Foods than Dollar General.

          The self-proclaimed champion of the working stiff actually has half an insight here, but for some reason isn’t willing to follow it through to a logical conclusion, because that would involve some degree of solidarity with people he casts as morally and socially deficient… for whatever reasons he has.

          • Phil Williams

            “Coincidental” was not the best choice of words. I meant that most of the “exclusive” places in Asheville are not for the “little people” in general and do not necessarily appear to discriminate on race these days. The snob appeal of certain institutions is that only people above a certain level of income can enjoy them. Admittedly this could be form of indirect – but still intentional – discrimination if the proprietor, board, etc., assume that since there are fewer wealthy minority people, it follows that fewer minorities could afford to patronize those places.

            As for employment with the City/County, I disagree with Mr. Penley’s assessment that institutional racism is rampant. First, he was in error to state that the Fire Dept is all white and that there are no minority customers or workers downtown or in West Asheville. This is simply not true.

            I think Mr. Penley is angry and his anger is somewhat misdirected. No, there aren’t a lot of minorities employed by the City/County – but neither are there a great many minority employees to choose from based on the population. My aggravation with the City is because they felt they must go to Charlotte to choose a candidate for a fairly high salary “figurehead” type position – when one 80K “Equity Manager” could have been two minority 40K rookie cops or firemen – and they could have at least hired a resident in either case.

            They seem to more concerned about symbolic gestures and not so much when it comes to actual, substantive efforts to address real issues – progressive in “identity” but not in actual practice. And Asheville’s issues existed long before President Trump or the “Alt Right” came about.

          • Lulz

            LOL you don’t suppose all the credentialed liberals also look down on working class? It’s why they can support illegals. No morals to disagree with bud. Elitist live in another reality where they don’t deall with what they yammer loudly about.

          • luther blissett

            Thanks for proving my point. Whole lotta looking-down-on going on here.

      • Peter Robbins

        Exactly right, Luther. The State of Black Asheville website has many disturbing examples of institutional racial disparities that are not mandated by a law. Of course, if one were looking for examples of discriminatory laws, well, can you think of any acts of the state legislature that have been been struck down on racial grounds? This week, I mean. I know, I know. The week’s not over yet. But still we must acknowledge that times have changed since Zebulon Vance walked amongst us.

        • Lulz

          LOL he ain’t talking about rednecks. He’s flatly accusing cosmopolitan liberals and hipsters. And he’s right. You left types pay token attention but in reality have nothing to do with blacks. This bull about taking down monuments doesn’t change that.

          • Able Allen

            Lulz, there’s nothing wrong with intoning that the left takes hypocritical positions about race relations, but please try maintain a more polite tone. Thank you.

          • Huhsure

            “Cosmopolitan,” eh? Stephen Miller’s special version of “cosmopolitan”?


            Why would you choose to use that word now? In this context?

  2. Phil Williams

    Demographics has something to do with the problem, I think. According to the 2010 Census, Skunkum County had a population of 238,318, of which blacks made up 7.48%. I don’t have the latest figures, but according to one site, the estimated total population had risen to 256,088 by 2015 – and the black population has actually declined to an estimated 6.4%.

    When I was human resources manager for APAC-Carolina (asphalt production and paving) we paid $9 per hour and provided free insurance for hourly entry-level employees – the work could be physically demanding , with environmental extremes of heat and cold, but 9 bucks an hour plus free insurance was pretty good in the late 80’s – early 90’s especially for someone with no education, no experience, a criminal record, etc.

    Because we worked many contracts for the State and Federal government and were paid with public funds, I had to aggressively monitor our minority workforce and document continual efforts to recruit minorities – this included job fairs that were specifically geared to the minority population, advertising, visiting schools and even the local correctional facilities –

    We even had the civilian equivalent of the old Russian “political commissar” – an EEO rep from the State who often facilitated the workshops, job fairs, etc., and checked our payroll records quarterly to ensure that we were at least trying to hire minorities. In 12 years of working there, I only managed to hire 3 or 4 blacks and perhaps 2 Native Americans (our division did not operate in a reasonable commuting distance from Swain/Graham counties) – what saved us from penalties and disbarment from government bids was the huge pool of Hispanic workers, many of whom came by the office daily until we had a slot for them.

    Do you reckon the City of Asheville’s incoming “Equity Manager” will help rectify all this inequality? I understand that they had to import this employee all the way from Charlotte at a salary of 80K per year. Seems there should have been a selection of competent, deserving local minority candidates who might have done a great job at a lesser salary….maybe an outside political commissar will make them import some more non-resident folks to help get the City on track just like private industries over 20 years ago had to be if they were to get paid with public funds.

    • Peter Robbins

      I suppose reasonable people could disagree on the point, but I don’t have a problem with hiring an expert, such an an equity manager, to address a persistent deficiency that good intentions alone do not appear to have solved. Sometimes I pay for a dentist, even though I have a perfectly good doorknob and piece of string.

  3. John Penley

    The APD’s own stats say 9 African Americans work in the department. 8% is the national average. So while technically the department is not all white I believe their own stats confirm pretty much what I said in the letter. If you read the above letter you can see that with the attitude the writer has it is no wonder they failed to hire anyone but mostly whites. Institutional racism is a fact and look at the letter above it also confirms what I said.

    • Phil Williams

      Ah “with the attitude the writer has it is no wonder they failed to hire anyone but mostly whites” …..Wow – so you know the employment stats and hiring procedures for my employer during the 1990s? I was a front-line manager, and in order to satisfy the EEO compliance requirements for our contracts, would have gladly hired any black person who applied.

      My point is that, despite every reasonable effort to reach that part of the population, hardly anyone applied! My “attitude” was that I wanted my employer to successfully meet government-set goals – and I was successful in meeting them, but largely due to the abundance of Hispanic people who sought the type of work we had to offer.

      And because I don’t agree with you that modern-day Asheville is an example of institutional racism, you have evidently accused me of being a racist – at least insofar as hiring practices go? Again – Wow. Just Wow.

      • The Real World

        Phil – The factual demographic make-up of AVL and Buncombe county has been articulated on this website numerous times by myself and others. Including in response to prior letters Mr Penley has written about this subject matter.

        At this point, any reasonable person would deduce that facts are utterly irrelevant to many people regarding certain (or maybe, all) subjects. They insist upon holding fast to some manufactured view that does not represent reality. It’s bonkers….as you have experienced.

        You can pretty much count on letters putting forth the same non-reality based themes in the future. Yet, this is supposed to be a town of the “progressively-minded”. Go figure. If that’s how progress is defined………..LOL.

        • luther blissett

          “The factual demographic make-up of AVL and Buncombe county has been articulated on this website numerous times by myself and others.”

          89% isn’t “100% give or take a few per cent.” Perhaps 90% white” is harder for white people to deal with than “98% white” or “60% white” but it’s up to the reality-minded to deal with that.

  4. John Penley

    On a matter related to this letter….I just called both the mayor’s office, WLOS and have submitted this letter to the ACT…. about the recent high profile murder at Pisgah View Apartments. I asked them both some questions. First question is this.. What do the mayor and the APD plan to do to stop the murders and shootings there ? Not just the comments they make every time which is we are investigating it. What is their plan to stop it from happening again ? In most cities after a high profile crime like this in a City Housing Project the mayor and the police chief actually go there and announce a plan to do something to stop it and they will have a visable presence to reassure the children and their families that they are actually going to do something. Not here, they just do not care and, lets be honest, both the mayor and the police chief bear some responsibility for the continued violence at PVA because they are not concerned enough to do anything about it. If you are concerned, as well , I suggest you also call the mayor and tell her.

    • Phil Conners

      Mr. Penley,

      How is it the APD is responsible to prevent ANY crime? It’s a serious question. If a crime happens, is it APD’s fault? What about responsibility of the person, their family, and their peers? These days, I feel like many people want to shift the blame to the wrong parties. It’s a complicated topic, no doubt. But, it’s not the APD’s fault if people come from broken homes, have challenging upbringing, make bad decisions, etc. Sure, the APD can patrol those apartments more, but is that solving the core ailment or simply suppressing the symptoms? Are more laws, bans, regulations, etc. really going to solve our issues? Is the problem really a lack of supervision? I don’t mean to be flippant, I just want to understand your comments.

      Best regards,

      • Lulz

        You mean a 70% single mother birth rate has negative consequences? Shocking I tell ya. How’s that oh what, 15 trillion in welfare working out?

    • Deplorable Infidel

      Maoyor and Council HONOR the housing authority as something GOOD for AVL and NEVER require ANY accountability from the people who operate this blight on our city!

      Did you know that the federal government GAVE the AVL Housing Authority total ‘autonomy’ in 1940 to operate here as they wish with NO accountability to the citizens? THAT must be
      STOPPED today! If they are autonomous then WHY do they keep BEGGING for MORE MONEY from the AVL taxpayers EVERY YEAR ? ? ?

      Gene Bell and David Nash of HACA should be ASHAMED to show their faces in this town! RESIGN NOW, Gene Bell !!!

    • bsummers

      In most cities after a high profile crime like this in a City Housing Project the mayor and the police chief actually go there…

      Just to be fair, the Mayor, vice-Mayor, Chief of Police, and other city officials went to a Southside community meeting just a couple of weeks ago to work on this problem, along with a prosecutor from the US Attorney’s office. Unfortunately, what made most of the news was that the meeting was interrupted by a gun incident right outside the front door.


    • Lulz

      LOL this is what I like about far left people. You lose an election and your best answer to it is to go full throttle on the the things that cost you votes. I don’t think west Asheville is full of Trump supporters. Yet according to the letter, is racist.

      • Phil Williams

        I think I will go see that movie “Get Out” – sounds like director Jordan Peele presented an interesting dark comedy view of wealthy white liberals…..

        • Lulz

          Limo libs are in fact lazy. Tell me one that has worked a real job? You can’t. Locally, the only jobs the crooks have ever done are lawyer or some government position where they seem themselves superior. Hence why they support smoking bans in private businesses but oddly enough no bans on the baby death mills. And like sheep, people don’t realize that if you allow these crooks to grasp control of one aspect of your property, they will continue to enact more crony laws. Hence the air bnb ban which is supported by the hotel goons.

          • Able Allen

            Let’s stay a little more directly on topic please.

          • Peter Robbins

            Oh, let the boys have their bromance. Fact-free prejudice, knee-jerk defensiveness and stubborn disrespect for expertise all help to define one aspect of this complex social problem. I appreciate those willing to sacrifice themselves to illustrate the point.

    • Lulz

      Can’t make people safe who’s only grasp on reality is what the government can do and who’s to blame when they can’t.

  5. Deplorable Infidel

    exactly right, Lulz!

    There is NO LEADERSHIP and NO ACCOUNTABILITY from the Housing Authority of Asheville! The Citizens need to get rid of as much public housing here as possible! It will always be a problem for the city if we continue to allow these people to run these projects without city oversight!!! ENOUGH MURDERS and lifelong multiple generational families in there…set them FREE !!!

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