Award-winning journalist examines Asheville’s racial tension

by Maeve Callahan – Staff Writer – [email protected]
Alex Kotlowitz brought his award-winning stories to UNC Asheville last Thursday, igniting discussions about the current state of racism in America.
“What really good storytelling does is create empathy. It places us in the shoes of others, lets us look at the world through the eyes of others,” Kotlowitz said in his presentation.
Kotlowitz, an award-winning journalist and best selling author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, currently studies attitudes toward and the climate surrounding racism in America. He screened his new documentary, The Interrupters, on campus.
Kotlowitz tells the stories of his urban neighbors living in disadvantaged communities in Chicago. He gives voice to people dealing with the effects of racism.
Ameena Batada, assistant professor of health and wellness, described the characteristics of disadvantaged neighborhoods.
“Neighborhoods that have predominately lower income have a lower tax base, which means fewer resources, poorer quality of education, fewer grocery stores and fewer opportunities for physical activity,” Batada said.
Mark Harvey, director of undergraduate research and associate professor of psychology, elaborated on the quality of education in disadvantaged communities.
“The schools themselves are of lower quality because so much of the quality of the school depends on the tax rate for that area. The revenue generated is based off of property values primarily. In wealthy neighborhoods, they generate more revenue, so they are going to be able to hire better teachers than they are in urban neighborhoods,” Harvey said.
Blacks of all income levels are more likely than whites of a similar income level to live in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic organization working to improve health and health care for American citizens.
In Asheville, 62.6 percent of people living in public housing are African-American, according to UNCA’s State of Black Asheville undergraduate research. Additionally, a reported 36.7 percent of African-Americans living in Asheville live below the poverty level.
The official presentation on the State of Black Asheville takes place on Thursday at 12:15 p.m. in Highsmith University Union, room 235.
Kotlowitz spoke about the threat of generalization, and said his purpose as a storyteller is to connect individuals from within a community to the rest of America and to give those people a voice.
“We need to take care not to craft a single narrative. Not to pigeonhole people, not to think that you already know,” Kotlowitz said.
Kotlowitz also said he considers individual stories important because they humanize a person.
The Young Women’s Christian Association is one organization in Asheville working to eliminate racism and to bridge gaps for minorities in the community, according to YWCA Director of Development Tami Ruckman.
Ruckman emphasized the importance of face-to-face interaction as a tool for the elimination of racism.
“It’s interesting to at least stand on the other side of it for a minute with my friend and look through that lens and really see,” Ruckman said.
Ruckman experiences firsthand the effects of racism because of diversity in her friendships and work relationships.
“If you are to look around the YW of Asheville, you would see that it is one of the most integrated places in Asheville. You walk around downtown and you see lots and lots of white,” Ruckman said.
Ruckman congratulated research devoted to exploring racisim, but said such works have little influence on change.
Harvey also spoke of past trends in science and research that would agree with Ruckman’s point of view.
“People have literally done research that has amounted to nothing more than advancing their own career in the academy and not really translating it into effective policy change,” Harvey said.
Detachment from the black community nurtures the cycle of disadvantage, according to Kotlowitz.
“There’s too much shouting going on. Too much ranting, too much stay-at-home-here’s-what-I-think-I-know-best diatribes from people who have little curiosity for the lives of those who are different from their own. And you know of whom I speak,” Kotlowitz said.