Don’t Stereotype Me

By Abigail Wendell

J.T. is fourteen. He is a ninth grader at Asheville High School and a resident of the Pisgah View Apartments on Asheville’s west side. Nestled into economic poverty and institutionalized racism behind Interstate 240, tucked in between a pop-culture that idealizes picking fights on one side and selling drugs on the other, J.T. strives to be different.

In fact, J.T ‘s main interest at this point in his life is to “be different” from his peers living in public housing. He differentiates himself by “doing the opposite. As far as fighting goes, I’m a very calm-natured person. I believe that there’s something wrong with you if you have to make fun of or pick on someone else to make yourself feel better.”

According to J.T.,
individuals should attempt to create their own identities. As Martin
Luther King, Jr. said, people should be judged by the content of their
character, not by their ability to impress each other with the physical
dominance that comes with winning a fight or the monetary benefits that
come with selling drugs. “Selling drugs and picking fights — that stuff
goes on because people want to be more popular and be looked at in a
certain way. It’s about image; doing it because that’s what everybody
else is doing. They don’t want to be the one looked at differently.”


Like J.T., adult residents of Pisgah View are attempting to create a
community with its own identity. According to PVA resident Yvette
Singleton, “This could be a great community. Everybody has their own
opinion. [Some] people are vying to get out of this place. But a
community is what you make it.”


Residents like T.J. and Ms. Singleton are not only fighting the status
quo in their attempts at self-creation, they are also fighting history,
racism, and, according to Ms. Singleton and fellow residents Lucia
Daugherty, Tammy Witten, and Cicely Rogers, “a [public housing] system
designed to fail.”


“Historically,” says Isaac Coleman, Assistant Manager of Pisgah View
Apartments, “urban renewal destroyed the African American community”
when the city of Asheville contracted with the Housing Authority as the
redevelopment agent to renew downtown. Under urban renewal, the Housing
Authority’s “focus was on eliminating blight and slums, or substandard
housing.” In effect, he says, “a large part of this work destroyed
African American neighborhoods and their business district… turned
[them] into zoning for offices and institutions.”


Public housing is supposed to be transitional housing for individuals
and families, be they Caucasian or people of color, who need a place to
stay while they save money to move into another apartment or buy their
own home. According to Witten, “the ultimate goal is family self
sufficiency.”


But there is nothing sufficient about the cycle public housing
residents are drawn into, sometimes for generations. As Lucia Daugherty
posed it, “My question is: how is transitional housing transitional, if
every time you actually get somewhere in life to have your income
increase, you have to pay public housing more? How can you ever save
money to get out of public housing?”


Ms. Witten agrees. “They get us in here at zero rent because we don’t
have a job. [Then], if I get a job they take thirty percent of my
income. That’s not much money to save after you pay for food, gas,
transportation and a phone.”


Adds Ms. Singleton, “If you want out of public housing, you have to get
a second job. You can’t spend time with your children. You have to work
like a dog.”


Ms. Daugherty comments on the difficulty of the child voucher system.
“I was only working twenty hours a week and you have to have thirty
hours a week to qualify for vouchers. If you want me to work thirty
hours a week in order to increase my hours, I need childcare, but I
can’t get a childcare vouchers until I work thirty hours a week. Do you
see the contradiction? As low-income, working class people, our life is
reduced to running the hamster wheel. It’s the institutionalization of
a people. Not just black people, but low income people.”


Being a poor person of color, however, exacerbates the situation.
African Americans face racism on a daily basis. According to Daugherty
and Robert White, “There are all different types and levels of racism.”
African Americans face institutionalized racism, racism as a minority
in a white-dominant society, as well as the bigotry of wealthy African
Americans toward poor African Americans. Added to all that is that poor
African Americans must struggle against others — Native Americans,
Caucasians, Hispanics — and other groups that live in poverty or have
limited opportunities to achieve their aspirations.

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