Meet Dwight Mullen: Uncovering 'The State Of Black Asheville'

May 8, 2017

Credit UNC Asheville

Growing up in South Los Angeles, Dwight Mullen remembers constant tension between the community and police. He specifically recalls the 1965 Watts riots and the impact it had on the city.

Mullen found solace and support in his Seventh-day Adventist School and a community that encouraged him to pursue academics. He eventually became the first in his family to attend college. Over the years, he’s stayed in academia through different avenues. He’s taught local government officials about public policy in Nigeria and for decades has been a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

In the last decade, Mullen has led “The State of Black Asheville” project. It includes an annual report about racial disparities in Asheville and a conference on the report with members of the Buncombe County community.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On growing up in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles

I was in elementary school moving into middle school and for me that was the time when my first contact with the LAPD happened. I remember being followed from the bus stop to home, being baited by LAPD. That was one of my first real memories of confrontation. I remember the gangs in Watts before the rebellion. They were called the Slausons, that was the biggest gang. It was something to be affiliated because you couldn't really depend on LAPD or L.A. County Sheriffs or California Highway Patrol. You had to depend on local folk, and the local folk protected you from the neighborhoods and the gangs. I was too young. My brothers were my protections through the gangs. They had affiliations.

On the role of the Black Panther Party in Watts

The Black Panthers took one of the storefronts that had been closed up and reopened it as one of the headquarters. They approached UCLA and USC to bring medical students and dental students into Watts to open clinics. During that summer, they opened a clinic at the local elementary school. Literally, people were lined up for blocks to get a medical or dental exam. That was the first time a dentist had looked into my mouth. I mean to think about going to a dentist, are you kidding?

On being one of the only African-American kids in his Seventh-day Adventist School

The only white folk I’d ever seen were LAPD and insurance men. Those were the only folks who came to Watts. So here I am at school with these children and they are coming back talking to me about The Beatles coming on Ed Sullivan and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why these girls in my class were just beside themselves before and then after the appearance. I just couldn’t understand it. That same year, Muhammad Ali fought for one of the championships. I remember being so excited and the only thing people said to me at school that day was, “He’s just a hot dog. He talks too much.” I was offended at a very personal level that Muhammad Ali was not being worshipped. It was clearly a racial thing. It’s funny because I remember also having to explain how Muhammad Ali was not offensive to me.

On recruiting pivotal speakers to come to Loma Linda University when Mullen was the Student Government President

The impression [Ralph Abernathy] gave me was that the nonviolent civil rights movement was just as gutsy, just as militant, just as important as what I had always associated with the Black Panther Party. The danger and the chances he took with his life, and then Martin Luther King literally dying in his arms, having that explained to me moved me in a very real sense. Then Lerone Bennett was editor-in-chief of Ebony Magazine. I met Mr. Bennett and we had contacts later in life also. One of his things that he left me with is that the key to this country is not just race, it’s also class. Race and class across regional lines was so important in terms of structural and strategic maneuvers to avoid the traps of where we had been in the past.

On moving to Nigeria to teach public policy and adjusting to the culture

It took a while for it to hit me, it was culture shock, but everybody around me was black. The police were black, government officials were black, all the students were black. It was so confirming. Then when I looked closer at the culture, the things I ate and my sense of humor were repeated and reverberated through the community. We were in northern Nigeria, basically where Boko Haram is right now. [The community] accepted us. My oldest girl even started speaking Hausa and had developed an accent. We were acculturated, and then coming back to the United States was equally culture shock. To see yourself absent in the public image or only negatively depicted was difficult. We came back in the beginning of the HIV breakout and the crack wars.

On taking a position at UNC-Asheville in 1984 and the culture surrounding campus

I was in with a group of black faculty that had been recruited. We were there to desegregate the institution. When I figured out what was going that we were a part of the consent decree that was signed by the University of North Carolina, it changed my perspective of being on a white campus. It became the microcosm of the homefront. I had to have it explained. I told my mentors, “You’ve got to get me out of here. I can’t be around all these white people.” They said, “No, you need to stay exactly where you are because the work you are doing is as important as the work we are doing at these HBCUs.” I really appreciated the things they put in because I thought they would look down on me for having not returned to the community as I had once promised.  

On the origins of ‘The State of Black Asheville’ project

It was following Hurricane Katrina. I had people in my classes from New Orleans who had been displaced. They were clearly traumatized and I needed to understand what was going on with them. In a public policy course I offered, I changed the curriculum and said, “Look, if a hurricane hit Asheville, who would be floating in the water? What would that look like?” It led to an examination of what’s going on with public policy areas and we arranged for the students who did the research to meet with the policy makers and it turned into the first conference.