Charlotte street protests: Where the new South meets the old South

Four nights of street protests over Keith Scott's death also reveal a simmering anger toward what Charlotte’s new gilded façade represents: racial and economic inequality.

REUTERS/Jason Miczek
People cheer at a rally at Marshall Park to protest the police shooting of Keith Scott, in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S. Saturday, September 24, 2016.

There’s Houston and Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla., of course, but perhaps no city epitomizes the promise of the New South more than this old Indian trading post turned global banking capital.

The spires of big banks pierce the Carolina blue sky. Money is being made hand over fist, and the city has swelled as young college-educated people are drawn as if toward a middle-class siren – a place where 25 percent of households make more than $100,000 a year, one of the highest rates in the country. Trolleys sway along new tracks into neighborhoods where barbecue entrepreneurs build empires of smoke out of burnt brisket ends.

But now, the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday has shattered Charlotte’s carefully manicured self-image as a place of “opportunity broadly shared,” in the words of Gene Nichol, a University of North Carolina law professor who studies urban poverty.

A fourth night of protest came Friday amid visceral expressions of dismay and anger  – not just at the death of another black man at the hands of police – but toward the inequality that Charlotte’s gilded façade represents.

To be sure, the unrest here is chiefly to demand answers about why Mr. Scott had to die, and the refusal by police to release video that could clarify conflicting narratives. Police on Saturday released video of the encounter, but initial impressions are that it clarifies little.

Long before the death of Scott, however, the promise of the New South had begun to fade for poorer African-Americans here in Charlotte, as a legacy of racial marginalization corrodes the city’s communal hopes for can-do equality and opportunity.

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts concedes that, broadly, “there’s an issue of police relations with the African-American community in America” that can hit even a vibrant city like Charlotte, which she says has “a long history of great relations.”

But more importantly, she concedes, “there is an underlying sense that we have a history of racial disparity and racial divide that still persists in education and economic opportunity, even housing and access to public assets, and I think we need to face that.”

In Charlotte, a different story

During the past two years, anti-police protests in the wake of police shootings have flared in old-line segregated northern cities like St. Louis and Baltimore, where segregational housing policies have resulted in widespread black poverty and despair, followed by higher than average rates of violence.

But this week's events in Charlotte, where a dozen police officers have been injured and the Uptown business district looted, suggest a new vulnerability for the fast-growing metropolises of the New South.

Charlotte is an unlikely place for a riot. The rise of Bank of America, the first national bank (orchestrated largely by a former Marine named Hugh McColl), laid the foundation for a city focused on global trade and finance. With the election of the city's first black mayor, Harvey Gantt, in 1983, the city showed it had overcome some of the racial animosity that made North Carolina one of the hotbeds of the civil rights era.

Moreover, Charlotte prides itself on a progressive, can-do attitude, where the Green Party sponsors street clean-ups and where the city council opened bathrooms up to transgender choice until the state legislature stepped in to outlaw it, causing a national stir.

The city’s civic focus has brought fast growth, with nearly 18,000 people moving to the city between July 2014 and July 2015. The city now has more than 800,000 residents, nearly twice that of Atlanta (though the Atlanta metro area is far larger than Charlotte’s broader environs).

Given its focus on opportunity and progress, the protests have tarnished a carefully curated image. “These protests are hurtful, because Charlotte has done many things right to get to this point,” says Charles Bolton, a professor of Southern history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

At least that’s what many Charlotte residents, especially wealthy whites, say.

A University of North Carolina researcher studying the dynamics of Charlotte’s poverty had to go to a dentist while she was in the city. When she explained that she was studying poverty, the dentist was taken aback: “Poverty?” he said. “There’s no poverty in Charlotte.”

Such statements underscore the extent to which black and white residents often have wholly different views of reality.

One city, two realities

According to research by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty, hard work and good education pay off for many in the Queen City. But if you start out poor and black, your chances of moving up are worse in Charlotte than almost anywhere else in the country, Dr. Chetty found in a 2014 study done while he was a Harvard University professor.

“We’re looking at so many issues of income inequity, and it’s frustrating if you’re over here [watching the growth of Charlotte] and saying, ‘I’m doing everything possible, but what’s changing in my life?’ ” says Carla Cunningham, a state representative whose district includes the neighborhood where Scott was killed on Tuesday. “And if you’re not seeing something changing, you have to ask, ‘What is going on?’”

Such questions are growing amid a tough stretch for the city’s self-esteem. Wells Fargo, based in Charlotte, has been under federal investigation for allegedly using deceptive sales practices. Three years ago, a black motorist seeking help after an accident was killed by a white police officer, sparking protests. Last year, the trial of the officer ended in a hung jury. The Great Recession worsened wealth inequality as many middle-class jobs dried up and never returned. And the city recently went through a stretch where it had four different mayors in just over a year, following Mayor Patrick Cannon’s indictment for taking $50,000 in bribes from FBI agents posing as real estate developers.

Meanwhile, as hedge funds buy up property with skyline sight lines, the kind of fast growth that Mr. Cannon promised to facilitate in exchange for kickbacks is literally bulldozing some black neighborhoods, leaving long-time residents priced out and heading for the fringes of the city, where transportation is more expensive and economic opportunity is more distant.

“Charlotte is a great city, an economic powerhouse,” says Professor Nichol, at the UNC School of Law. “It’s the wealthiest city in North Carolina. But he adds that protests over Scott’s death have undermined that image. The protests “show the city has segregated and racialized poverty that’s less known and not well understood” by many people who live in the city.

Alarmed by the Harvard report on economic mobility, the city assembled a mobility task force that is slated to release a report soon. It’s likely to focus on trying to break a pattern of African-Americans being grouped together into low-performing schools.

“Poverty is concentrated in our African-American communities, and that’s not what people think of when they think of the American dream,” says Mayor Roberts, a Democrat. “Everyone is supposed to have equal access to the future, and we need to continue to be honest about that.”

Though organizations such as Goodwill Industries and the National Urban League have partnered with the city to expand services to poor people, she adds, “it is not providing change in a broad enough or rapid enough manner, and I think that makes people frustrated. The sooner we can move from violence to true dialogue the better, and I’m hopeful that that can happen soon in Charlotte.”

Beyond Charlotte

The problems, too, are tied to broader political shifts in state politics.

Part of the issue is that the North Carolina legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, have cut unemployment benefits and tax credits that help poorer people. State Representative Cunningham files numerous bills to raise the minimum wage every session, but they have yet to reach committee.

The failure of whites to acknowledge that many blacks face structural inequities even in the New South amounts to the “the Old South rearing its ugly head,” says Larry Bruce, a Charlotte IT professional, who is black.

North Carolina Rep. Robert Pittenger (R) told the BBC this week that protesters “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.” He quickly apologized, but the statement resonated because it exemplified a broader view among many in not just the South, but the US as a whole: That black poverty has little to do with structural inequalities, which means that states like North Carolina owe black Americans nothing.

The view from Cherry

On a knoll overlooking the glittering Charlotte skyline sits the Cherry Community, the city’s most significant historic black neighborhood.

Today, Cherry is Exhibit A in Charlotte’s hubristic growth. Rising wealth means builders, often funded by hedge funds, purchase large numbers of lots from landlords. In Cherry, two-story suburban homes with attached garages are rising with the speed of mushrooms after a wet summer.

Meanwhile, middle-class black people can’t afford to live in the new houses. The real problem is that police and others in power fail to “treat people like people,” says Anthony Brown, a 30-something father with heavy dreadlocks. “So people are fed up.”

What white people don’t seem to get, he says, is that black people remember the long litany of injustices that have faced their communities. In Charlotte, it could be promises from the city that it would rebuild a bulldozed school in a black neighborhood, which never happened. Some memories are more visceral.

Mr. Brown says in the 1980s, when he was 5, he watched police gun down a neighbor. “He had his hands up, and told the police that he was going to move a tricycle so he wouldn’t tumble down the front stairs, and when he moved his hand downward they shot him. It happened right there, in front of me.”

“If you’re brown, you’re down,” agrees his friend, Robert Redfearn.

Indeed, as much as they are demands for justice for a slain black man, the protests in Charlotte are a reminder that the New South, where most black Americans live, has not yet overcome the region’s long legacy of systemic racism.

“The civil rights movement addressed the vote and did lead to more economic prosperity for the South, but it hasn’t really been as broadly shared as people think,” says Professor Bolton at UNC at Greensboro. “We’ve done all the easy things. Now we have to do the hard things.”

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