by Jefferson Ellison. Published on April 11, 2021.
Small town gossip serves a myriad of purposes. It can be entertaining, it can be action-based, but most times, it can be informative. It’s tawdry and light most of the time, but today, unfortunately, it’s a bit heavier. According to the data analyst, Douglas Ray, there have been 45 reported victims of homicide in Asheville, NC, between January 2016 and December 2020, and over half of those victims were Black. Digesting those numbers can bring myriad reactions, so let’s put that into context. Asheville is a city of 93,000 residents, and on a good day, Asheville is 12% Black, and yet 62% of the homicide victims since 2016 have been Black.
In his piece, Ray breaks it down further -
According to the U.S. Census, in 2019 approximately 78,000 Asheville residents identified as White alone while approximately only 10,400 identified as Black alone. Therefore, since there were 16 White victims that means that roughly 1 out of every 4,875 White residents died of homicide over the past five years. For Black residents, it was 1 out of every 371. That is a deeply disturbing disparity and one that requires immediate action.
Immediate action is right. But one could argue - and of course, I will - that the first action should be an emotional outcry. Reading those numbers, I have nothing to offer but emotion - anger, sadness, confusion, fear but most of all, I have questions.
Who were these people? Did they know they were going to die? Did they care? Why is the disparity so stark? How do we fix it?
Before going too deep, I want to silence the respectability politics and the White ignorance that I can feel lurking in the shadows. While this is most certainly a race issue, it has nothing to do with “Black-on-Black” crime. Overwhelmingly, violent crimes are intraracial. Meaning that White people kill each other at the same rates that Black people kill each other at the same rates that Asians kill each other. Violent crimes happen through proximity, and people tend to be in a community with people like them. Also, this is not a statistic about at what rate people commit crimes. This number tells you at a specific crime rate; this is how that number breaks down. So the question is quite simple, in a city of low violent crime, why are Black people dying at a disproportionate rate? And what can we do to stop it? In his piece, Ray mentions the steps happening at a government level -
The City of Asheville has taken several actions to address racial inequities within recent years. The Office of Equity & Inclusion was established with the purpose of promoting equity through “understanding, analyzing and eliminating the root causes of racial disparities, and advancing equitable policies, practices and procedures.”
The City Council passed a reparations initiative that seeks to increase homeownership and business opportunities for Black residents.
In November 2020, a task force jointly appointed by the Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted to remove the downtown Asheville obelisk named after Zebulon Vance in order to “address the symbols that linger from the Civil War and Jim Crow that foster hate and racial terrorism.”
From their multi-level approach, it appears the City of Asheville recognizes that while this is a violent crime statistic, the answer is not as simple as removing guns from the neighborhoods. Having said that, I’m still not convinced that the community of Asheville - specifically the White community - understands what is at the core of numbers like these. And what that is, is a lack of internal and external protection. Bear with me.
Samuel Butler once said that self-preservation is the first law of nature. This sentiment can work both ways. Externally, we the people make up the community. We are the government. We are the heart. We are the people. This is why our democracy has firefighters, police offices, traffic monitors, etc. The notion is that we need to protect each other because we are valuable to the collective. So what does it mean that the community is not covering a specific group of people. I don’t need mean performatively; I mean in actuality. Regardless of what the “efforts” are, if they are not working consistently, and we aren’t implementing things that we know work, are the rates that we know create the desired impact, then we aren’t trying. The last year has taught us that when the community actually wants to do something, they will. So why isn’t the community actively looking out for itself? Or is it? Perhaps Asheville doesn’t see Black citizens as a part of the broader community, and so they feel less of an obligation to be effective in protecting them.
And you know what, they can feel it. And they internalize it, and then they have less reason for self-preservation. Many people like to say that Black people are like crabs in a barrel. But forget to mention that the barrel is not the crab’s natural habitat. How can you expect a group of people with no buy-in and few options living in unnatural and nonconducive environments to behave and perform they want they naturally would/could.
At the risk of being cliche, think about athletes. A senior in high school who is on the varsity basketball team looking for a college scholarship has his entire life ahead of him. His future, his dreams all rely on his ability to be the best player and perform consistently. So he’s going to show up to practice on time, so he doesn’t risk upsetting his coach and getting benched. He’s going to eat healthily and work out so he can perform at his peak level. He isn’t going to try dangerous stunts like mountain climbing or skateboarding because he doesn’t want to risk harming himself. He’s going to get enough sleep. He isn’t going to do drugs. He is going to protect his hopes and dreams and his future because he can see them, and he knows that they are possible. Can you say the same about the Black community in Asheville?
Can you honestly say that the Black community in Asheville sees plausibility in their hopes and dreams? Do they have opportunity? Do they have a reason to believe that life will get better and is therefore worth protecting? These crimes aren’t just about the people who commit them and therefore have decided that their desire to commit the crime is greater than the fear of jail or death. That is too easy. I’m speaking on the people who put themselves in situations with a higher likelihood of putting their lives or futures in danger. One could argue that, by not being overly protective, knowing what they know, they aren’t choosing self-preservation.
Or is it balance? Is it that part of self-preservation is community and validation, and love and acceptance and reflection? So if the only way you can have those things is by putting yourself in situations that may result in at-risk activity, it becomes a triage. Many living creatures in nature - humans included - find a lonely world uninhabitable. So if the only way you can survive is by risking your life… that’s a choice many have to make. We all like to joke that White people do death-defying stunts because they have so much privilege that they seek out risk. What does it mean that people without that privilege accept the risk at the same rate, if not higher?