The Asheville School's Voice

Inequality in Asheville

March 31, 2018

The first time I came to Asheville was last year for my tour of the school. During my three days staying in the city, I was mesmerized by the manner in which the city laid across the Appalachian Mountains, delighted by the quaint shops, and impressed by the progressive nature of a city in the middle of Trump country. Despite my warm first impression of the city I could not help but feel somewhat at unease here. As much as I respected the activism, especially seen in the Women’s March that coincided with my stay, I also was somewhat alarmed at the fact that I sparingly saw black people, or any other minorities for that matter. The few black people I did see in downtown were often custodial workers or others employed in service industries. This lack of visibility for the African-American population led me to wonder, “Is there a significant black community or population in Asheville?” and “In terms of racial equality, is the city anywhere close to the values it champions?” My questions led me to want to know more about the state of black Asheville and the racial inequality in the city. What I found was stunning. The median household income for the city is already low by national standards, standing at $42,000 a year compared to the national average of $59,000 a year. Yet, the African-American median household income in Asheville is even lower, standing at $30,000 a year. 29% of black residents do not own a vehicle, which limits job opportunities, as Asheville is a low-density city which relies primarily on automobile transportation. 39% of men stopped by the Asheville Police Department are black, despite the fact that only 13% of the population is black. In the educational system, 70.7% of students who are suspended from school are black, while only about 20% of black students are proficient in math and reading. And 52% of public housing residents in the city are black. These statistics reflect a system of racial inequality that is deeply entrenched in the city’s history. In 1860, there were almost 2,000 slaves in Buncombe County, who made up 16% of the county’s population. After the end of the Civil War, newly freed slaves began moving to the Appalachian Mountains and strong black communities, most noticeably the East End neighborhood. After Jim Crow, the East End section of the city was torn apart by the construction of Charlotte Street and urban renewal efforts, which destroyed the homes in businesses in East End which were viewed as “blighted.” This destruction of an important black neighborhood drove many poorer black residents into pockets of concentrated poverty in less desirable areas of the city. As Asheville becomes more popular, home values (which are already significantly higher than Chicago’s) will continue to rise, forcing many black residents out of town. This trend was seen in the change from the 2000 to 2010 Census, in which African-Americans dropped from 17 to 13 percent of the city’s population. At this point you may be asking why I feel like I have the credibility to write on the topic of racial inequality in Asheville. I am writing about a situation in a city I am not from, fully invested in, and only live in about eight months out of the year. And in some ways those doubts are warranted. I am not from here, and not long ago I only saw it as a place with nice mountains where Obama vacationed. I may be an outsider to the city, but the situation in Asheville is not unique. Cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and Austin are havens for white liberals, and in each city, there is an overlapping want to have the cake and eat it too, or, simply put, many people both outside and in these cities, want to say that their cities are almost utopian, free from the overt racism found in much of rural America, but exempt from the strife and de facto segregation found in metropoles such as Houston, but do not know about or care to acknowledge the issue of racial inequality in their cities. Like Asheville, these cities are rapidly gentrifying, as black communities disappear. Despite this attitude of ignorance or the problem of racial inequality in Asheville, there is still a lot of hope for the future. There are a lot of different grassroots organizations and activists, such as Dwayne Barton and Hood Huggers, trying to draw attention to the effects of gentrification on historically black neighborhoods. There are also many citizens in the city who know about the issue and are willing to address it head-on. But, for Asheville to progress into a city that is a beacon of equality and progress, it is going to have to face its problem of racial equality.

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