Anti-Racism and the Building Industry: Our Role in Building Racial Equity
By Stuart Zitin
We watched for almost nine horrifying minutes as a Minneapolis police officer suffocated George Floyd with a knee on his neck in May of 2020. Across the U.S. and the world, in cities and towns large and small, people took to the streets. We have again risen up in numbers to protest racial discrimination.
It’s not just about police brutality, even though this is only the latest of numerous brutal incidents. America’s original sin of slavery and lynching has evolved into systemic racism that has marginalized the African American community.
Racism in our industry and town
There is a long history of racism in our construction and real-estate industries. Redlining, white flight, discriminatory lending, and many other injustices were prevalent throughout post-World War II America. The G.I. Bill helped many whites to purchase homes, while few Black families benefited. Later, we built multi-story, urban public housing, which failed memorably and miserably to provide a safe, healthy environment.
When desegregation happened in Asheville, Black citizens here were adversely affected. Their segregated Stephens-Lee High School was closed, and they were sent to the all-white Asheville High. Little attempt was made to welcome them to the new school. None of their trophies and other memorabilia was taken for display in their new school. The discrimination they bravely faced was formidable.
Most Black businesses in the Block eventually went under, and white-owned discount stores were opened to people of color. Gentrification has dramatically changed many neighborhoods, including Montford, the South Slope, and West Asheville. Many Black residents have had to relocate due to increasing property taxes.
When I moved here in 1981, those urban areas were very affordable. Asheville was literally a sleepy mountain town, with little happening downtown after 5. Now that tourists have discovered us, some have understandably moved here, pressuring the housing market, and substantially boosting the construction industry. Of course, all that reasonably-priced housing stock is gone. In its place are overpriced fixer-uppers, tract homes, and green-built residences for more than $400,000.
With 11 million tourists visiting each year, Asheville has decided to foster a hotel explosion. Nevertheless, our city government has long promoted the idea of affordable housing. Locally, Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity and Mountain Housing Opportunities have greatly increased availability. In 2016 an overwhelming majority of Asheville voted for a $24 million housing trust fund. The City of Asheville has been disbursing that while the problem gets worse.
The context is a highly profit-driven, reactionary construction industry loath to change. While building science has improved our potential to be safe and comfortable in our homes, poor folks of color are still in inadequate housing, often in environmentally compromised neighborhoods, with higher numbers of life-threatening diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.
Particularly here in Asheville, racial inequality is rampant and public housing is woefully inadequate. The socioeconomic, health, and educational disparities between whites and Blacks are deeply disturbing. As a long-time resident, I’ve observed with distress numerous unsuccessful attempts to rectify them. I participated in Building Bridges of Asheville since it began in 1993 — first as an attendee, then as a facilitator, board member and board chair.
Our nation’s racial divide is also its most intractable and pressing problem to resolve, and it is a white problem.
The path forward
What do we want Asheville to look like?
Sustainability has become quite the buzzword, but what’s sustainable about a sprawling green home on a ridgetop for one retired couple?
Healthy, affordable and available housing is at the heart of a society whose moral arc bends toward justice. Thoughtful builders can find house plans that are small and efficient, while still achieving certification through Green Built Homes and ENERGY STAR®. Infill building is creating more density, which is appropriate in the city.
Yes, people often move here with money, which seems to go further in this right-to-work state. Maybe we builders want to make a bundle, retire early, and meet this demographic where it’s at. I get it. We work really hard, often long hours, frequently in unfavorable weather. We deserve the rewards.
The thing is — no justice, no peace. That’s true the entire world over, throughout history. If we want healthy children, safe neighborhoods, and good jobs in a sustainable economy, we have to greatly reduce inequality and eliminate racism.
Words matter. Stand up and speak out when you hear bigoted talk or racist language. Now there’s anti-Latinx talk here as more Latin Americans enter construction, maybe with a stronger work ethic than many American workers. Many whites are threatened by people of color entering our industry and putting them out of jobs.
We’re in trouble, folks. What can we do?
If you’re the boss, seek to hire more people of color. There are numerous Black-owned businesses and skilled Black workers in Asheville. Green Opportunities trains disadvantaged youth for jobs in both the construction and culinary industries. Consider enrolling in the next nine-week Building Bridges session to learn more about the history of the local Black community, and joining the Racial Justice Coalition or the Racial Equity Institute.
Consult local experts. Read the results of retired professor Dwight Mullen’s State of Black Asheville project from University of North Carolina Asheville. Professor Darrin Waters has researched the history of Black folks in our mountains, including the enslavement of several hundred. For years, Deborah Miles has diligently run The Center for Diversity Education at UNC Asheville as well. (Find links to these resources in the box accompanying this article.)
If you want to change things, you’ve got to understand how and why they are. There’s plenty of information out there. Get informed; talk with friends, family, coworkers, suppliers and subcontractors; and make plans to get involved if that is your desire. If not, take responsibility for your little world. Interrupt racist talk and behavior. Understand and utilize your white privilege to override racist systems.
Time for change
Racism and other forms of prejudice are characterized by tunnel vision — narrow thinking and fear. Our nation has a history of both welcoming and reviling immigrants, as we struggle with that issue too. Unrest has lingered and erupted, and we’re pitted against one another.
That old ruling-class ploy counts on the fight to stay off the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, but the “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” ideal and the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” myth have lost favor. Many hard-working citizens still can’t get ahead, as opportunities are lacking. Black people in particular have suffered under this oppressive narrative far too long.
Change is long overdue, and it begins with you and me.
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
Building Bridges of Asheville, bbavl.org
Racial Justice Coalition, facebook.com/RJC.Asheville
Racial Equity Institute, racialequityinstitute.com
Black-owned businesses in Asheville:
Other trusted sources:
Green Opportunities, greenopportunities.org
State of Black Asheville, stateofblackasheville.com
Darrin Waters, darinwaters.com
Deborah Miles, diversityed.unca.edu
Stuart Zitin owns Building for Life, LLC, as a North Carolina Licensed General Contractor since 1995. He has built new homes and completed additions, remodels, and renovations, as well as commercial trim projects for more than 45 years. He is currently developing four acres in Asheville with 18 homes — some affordable, some workforce housing — planned to be certified through Green Built Homes and ENERGY STAR®. Connect with Stuart at buildingforlifeasheville.com.
You can also view this article as it was originally published on pages 66-67 of the 2020-2021 edition of the directory.