BY JERRY STERNBERG
ANGER, OUTRAGE, FEAR, PAIN, SATISFACTION, HOPE.
I’ve been suffering from emotional whiplash ever since the first time I saw video of the brutal murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. And when citizens took to the streets in protest, I thought to myself, “Haven’t I seen this movie before?” The Martin Luther King riots, the Asheville High School riot, the Rodney King riots.
The problem is that these hooligans who burn and pillage seriously tarnish the image of those brave and dedicated protesters who are peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights.
I admit that, back when I had my small business on Riverside Drive, my rage over such senseless acts of burning and pillage might have provoked me to violent action in an attempt to keep everything I’d ever worked for in my entire life from being destroyed.
On the other side, though, are the police who beat Johnnie Rush for jaywalking at midnight on a deserted downtown street, who used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the peaceful protesters on Bowen Bridge — and, especially, those officers who assaulted the emergency medical station with the lame excuse that the bottles of water they were destroying were being weaponized by the protesters. This, too, is hooligan behavior that besmirches the reputation of our dedicated Asheville police officers and firefighters, who put their lives on the line daily in exchange for a pathetic pay scale while their wives and children wonder whether they’ll return safely from their latest dangerous shift.
I grew up in Asheville, and racial injustice was part of my way of life, too, but I didn’t pay it much attention because I was not the victim.
I have a vivid memory, as a teenager riding a bus, of seeing a Black man on crutches with one leg of his pants pinned up, making the excruciating effort to climb on board and, even though there was a seat right up front, dragging himself all the way to the back of the bus to sit down. The driver wasn’t even concerned enough to wait for him to find a seat before proceeding to the next stop.
I asked a Black lady, whom I knew because she was a maid in my neighborhood, who he was and what had happened to him. She said he was a World War II veteran who’d stepped on a mine and lost his leg. It seems the term “greatest generation” applied only to those of our brave military veterans who were white.
In 2008, I wrote an article about some of the many racial injustices that involved Black men I have known and respected. I remember several occasions in the 1940s when I would go with my father to police court on Monday morning to bail out several of our Black employees who’d been arrested over the weekend for public drunkenness. And it was true that many had serious alcohol problems.
At the same time, white people also got drunk and, yes, disorderly at their country clubs and the Sky Club, and many were apprehended for drunk driving. In most cases, though, the police would just give them a warning and sometimes even drove them home. Ironically, the white prosecutor had serious alcohol problems himself.
I could give you a litany of racial injustice incidents that I’ve personally observed over the years, but maybe we should ask our dedicated and beloved County Commissioner Al Whitesides — who, back in his student days, bravely sat at the Woolworth counter and endured scathing abuse for simply demanding that Black people have access to the same public accommodations as white folks — to tell us his stories.
I have thought long and hard, particularly during the last few weeks, about why many of us white Southerners still don’t have an understanding of Black anger “AFTER ALL WE’VE DONE FOR THEM.”
One of the problems for me, having attended the segregated David Millard Junior High and Lee H. Edwards High School, is the way that, in all our history courses, Black slavery was sanitized.
The narrative went like this:
We in the South had all these slaves who worked in the fields and the houses. The Yankees, who were industrialized, were taking advantage of the agricultural South with unfavorable taxes and tariffs. The South seceded from the Union in protest. The Yankees won the war and pillaged and burned our cities.
Lincoln freed the slaves; we had segregation and Jim Crow laws. Later, Martin Luther King stirred up the Black people and we repealed the Jim Crow laws and desegregated the schools.
So, what is their problem?
When I was young, we sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at almost every public event, and then we sang “Dixie.” Interestingly, when I think about it, I never saw a Black person sing “Dixie.”
We were proud of our valiant Confederate ancestors, who fought for the South against these Yankee oppressors. We saw Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara glamorize slavery and the Confederacy.
I don’t remember a single history lesson that made a point of saying it was a crime to teach a slave to read and write, because it was recognized that education was their ticket out of slavery. Even a century later, we were still very reluctant to give Blacks equal educational opportunities, because that would give them an advantage over illiterate whites when it came to applying for jobs.
There must have been hundreds of thousands of highly intelligent Black slaves who were denied education and, thus, the opportunity to fully employ both their minds and their talents. It’s my personal opinion that this heinous act of educational deprivation created a cultural deficit that continues to this day.
It’s also telling that, in many cases, the slaves got better health care than many in the Black community do today, because they were considered a valuable capital asset, just like a mule or a fine horse. If they got sick or died, they would cost the slave owner money.
Recently there’s been talk of reparations for slavery. If this happens, some of the money must go to providing intensive educational interventions aimed at reducing racial disparities in academic performance. We must also devote part of the money to addressing the Black community’s specialized health needs. In addition, money needs to be spent on developing police forces that not only defend but equally assist all of our citizens.
Meanwhile, we in Asheville need to know more about the positive work that goes on daily in the Black community. A good starting point might be to take one of the Hood Tours offered by Hood Huggers International. The local nonprofit was created by DeWayne Barton, an outstanding young Black activist who’s working very hard to teach respect both within and outside of the Black community. This just might be the catalyst that unites us all.
As I said earlier, “I’ve seen this movie before.” This time, however, I have hope, because young people have become seriously involved, and the movie has gone from color to black and white.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.