Knoxville’s Black Poverty Rate is #1 in Southeast

We’re Number 1 (and that’s a problem)

US News and World Report crunched some numbers earlier this year to determine the “125 Best Places to Live” in the USA.  Factoring in scores for “desirability, value, quality of life, net migration, and job market,”  Knoxville landed at 46 on the list.  The ranking was high enough to earn this horn-blowing headline in the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

“We already know Knoxville is a great place to live, but this makes it official.”

OK civic boosters and Chamber types, here’s your trigger warning/buzzkill alert….  The headline begs the question: Great place for whom?

Don’t get me wrong – I love my hometown.  But I suspect the city I love and the city on this list are mostly two different cities.

46 is a decent ranking for the above list, but when it comes to equity, Knoxville has a numbers problem.

The first problematic number is 42.  That refers to Knoxville’s African-American poverty rate, at 42%.  It seems most folks would agree that more than 2 out of 5 African American Knoxvillians in poverty is definitely not great, but hey – it could be worse, right? 

Well, worse than where?  As it turns out, indicates Knoxville’s African American poverty rate is the worst of all cities over 100,000 population in the Southeastern U.S.  Worse than Memphis.  Worse than New Orleans.  Worse than Jackson, Mississippi (Tennesseans usually find our state in second-last place in most state rankings of social and economic well-being. Now we can no longer say “Thank God for Mississippi.”).

The next problematic number is 17.  That refers to the percentage of Knoxville’s population who are African American, at 17%.  The problem here is of course not the population itself, but the wildly disproportionate threats to the well-being of the 1/6 of Knoxvillians who are Black.

Gun violence may be the most egregious example. If gun deaths by race were anything like Knoxville’s Black-White population ratio, the 12 gun deaths of Blacks reported by KPD so far this year would correlate to around 72 Whites killed by guns so far this year.  The reality is that only one White person has been killed by a gun in Knoxville so far this year.

Since well before Zaevion Dobson’s heroic yet fatal act in 2015 put a national spotlight on the scourge of Knoxville gun violence, never have more Whites than Blacks been killed by guns in Knoxville (and this kind of gross inequity is not unique to Knoxville). This doesn’t just turn equity on its head.  It grabs equity by its ankles and shakes it senseless.

An historic survey of 699 inner city Knoxville residents last spring confirmed that gun violence is overwhelmingly the most critical issue facing this community – from the standpoint of this community.  Given the above numbers, the coalition of grassroots groups who conducted the survey invited those respondents back to a series of forums to brainstorm fresh program and policy approaches to more effectively deal with gun violence, as well as lack of youth opportunities, unaffordable utilities, and police-community relations – all identified by the survey as top issues.  These new ideas on how to turn around some of those problem numbers have been assembled into the “Community Voices Equity Framework” – a set of 12 program and policy proposals that the Community Voices Coalition will present at its October 9 mayoral candidate forum.  The goal of the Coalition at the forum is to secure a commitment from the next mayor to partner with the coalition on making the Equity Framework a reality.

The point of working to make the Equity Framework a reality is to make it official: “Knoxville is a great place to live – for all.”

Knoxville Gun Homicides

2015 32 34 66
2017 25 47 72
2018 16 49 65
2019         (to date) 41             (+1 HISP) 87 128

Knoxville Non-Fatal Shootings

2015 4 14 18
2017 9 17 26
2018 3 13 16
2019      (to date) 1 (+1 HISP) 12 14

Source KPD


Rick Held is the Director of Community Engagement at the non-profit group Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development (SEEED) in Knoxville.      



2 thoughts on “Knoxville’s Black Poverty Rate is #1 in Southeast”

  1. Thats what Im talkin about. . leave em nice n broke. .dont let em get no money. . leave em ignorant with pants hangin off #ss

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