Shattering Charlotte's Myth of Racial Harmony

The Queen City has tended to see itself as a beacon of New South moderation, but from slavery to segregation to police violence, it faces the same pressures as many other metropolises.

Jason Miczek / Reuters

You often don’t have to scratch too hard on the surface of the New South to find the Old South right below it.

This is clear in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week, where intense demonstrations and riots have followed the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer on Wednesday. The banking mecca—the Southeast’s second-largest city—has tended to see itself as an avatar of modernity and moderation in a state where both are uneven. Although Uptown’s gleaming skyscrapers and chain restaurants seem to suggest a city that is both without, and untethered from, history, the Queen City was built on slavery and its racial politics remain fraught, just like those of nearly every other city. It struggles with a history of segregation, racial tension, and difficult relations between African Americans and their police department.

Charlotte does have a history, one that stretches back to before the American Revolution; Mecklenburg County claims to have declared independence from Britain way back in 1775, though historians aren’t sold. At one time, it was just another small Piedmont town. That changed when railroads came through in 1852, transforming Charlotte into a central hub for the plantation economy. The ability to easily move the produce of the slave economy out of the region and to markets transformed the village into a prosperous hub, its population more than doubling between 1850 and 1860. On the eve of the Civil War, Mecklenburg County had nearly 7,000 slaves, accounting for about 40 percent of the population.

After the Civil War, African Americans briefly gained political power in North Carolina, but by 1900, Democrats had returned to power and purged blacks from government.

Charlotte was not at the forefront of protests during the height of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Greensboro, with a large, middle-class black population and North Carolina A&T University, took the lead. Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools desegregated after Brown v. Board of Education, with Dorothy Counts enrolling at Harding High School, an all-white school, in 1957, surrounded by jeering whites. A photo ran in newspapers around the country.

By 1965, however, there were still 88 segregated campuses. That year, a black couple wanted to send their son James Swann to an integrated school, and were refused. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the Board of Education, with the case eventually going to the Supreme Court six years later. The justices ruled that busing was an appropriate remedy for racial imbalances in school districts.

What followed in Charlotte was a surprisingly successful experiment. The city undertook busing, producing a school district that was both well-integrated and produced strong student outcomes. In stark contrast to violent and deadly riots in Boston over busing, Charlotte was widely known as “the city that made desegregation work.” In the meantime, Charlotte was becoming a gleaming, corporate city, home to corporate giants like Bank of America, Wachovia, and Duke Energy.

The rosy period of integration didn’t last. After a lawsuits in the late 1990s against the school district from parents who opposed busing, Charlotte-Mecklenburg returned to a “neighborhood school model.” The result was a massive reversal. As Scalawag reported in an excellent, deep examination of Charlotte’s schools:

Just before the end of court-ordered desegregation, during the 2001-02 school year, 10 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools were isolated by race or poverty—or both, according to a UNC Charlotte analysis of data from the state Department of Public Instruction. By the 2013-14 school year, the number of racially or economically isolated campuses had quintupled, to more than 50.

It’s not hard to understand why this might be the case. Despite the city’s makeover, it remains extremely segregated, as this map from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Urban Institute shows:

Racial Population of Mecklenburg County, 2010 Census

A 2014 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics explored the results of the shift:

We find that the resegregation of CMS schools led to an increase in racial inequality. Both whites and minorities score lower on high school exams when they are assigned to schools with more minority students. Our estimates imply that rezoning in CMS widened the racial gap in math scores by about 0.025 standard deviation. Similarly, we find that white students are about 1 percentage point less likely to graduate from high school or attend a four-year college when they are assigned to schools with 10 percentage points more minority students. Finally, we find that rezoning in CMS led to a large and persistent increase in criminal activity among minority males—a 10 percentage point increase in share minority of a minority male’s assigned school led to an increase in the probability of incarceration of about 1.3 percentage points.

The result is that some African American residents of the city are actually seeing gains reversed.

Meanwhile, socioeconomics aside, there has been a tense relationship between the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department and its black citizens for years. Given the ambiguity around Scott’s death—police say he was holding a gun, but family members say he was reading—it might not immediately seem like an obvious rallying point. Police Chief Kerr Putney argued that protestors are reacting to a false narrative about Scott, but it seems likely that the incident was simply the trigger for protests rooted in years of resentment of police, similar to how the death of Freddie Gray exposed the deep cleavages in Baltimore for many years.

In September 2013, a black man named Jonathan Ferrell was in a car crash in Charlotte in the early hours of the morning. Seeking help, he banged on the door of a house. The resident called police, who shot Ferrell when they arrived. He was unarmed. The white officer who shot him 10 times, Randall Kerrick, was tried for involuntary manslaughter, but the case ended in a hung jury. Kerrick resigned from the police force under an agreement. The city also reached a $2.25 million settlement with Ferrell’s family.

A review by The Charlotte Observer in 2015 found that few officers were disciplined for shootings of civilians, even when the city was paying out large settlements:

The city has paid $3.4 million to families in settlements over the last decade in cases involving five shootings. Despite the payments, which meant the cases never went to court, Charlotte officers have rarely been suspended or fired for their use of deadly force.

The Observer obtained city documents listing current and former CMPD officers involved in 67 shootings since 2005. Only one police officer was fired. Another was suspended for two days.

A University of North Carolina study several years ago found that blacks were far more likely to be stopped by police in Charlotte, especially young black men, and that the racial disparity in traffic stops was growing. The city of Charlotte also considered instituting controversial “exclusion zones” for fighting prostitution in 2015, a solution that critics noted was likely to produce racially disparate results. The city eventually decided against the zones.

The chief of Charlotte’s police force, Kerr Putney, is black, as was his predecessor, Rodney Monroe. But recent experience in cities like Baltimore has shown that having black police chiefs, as well as black mayors, is not a panacea for racist law enforcement and racially based community tension. The department is also 76 percent white and only 17 percent black, while Mecklenburg County overall is 64 percent white and 28 percent black. Brentley Vinson, the officer who shot Scott, is black.

Putney has been outspoken about racial issues, weaving in his own experiences as both a black man and a cop.

“Even now when I see blue lights, it hits me in the stomach. I’ve had that reaction since I was eight years old,” Putney said in July, after police officers were killed in Dallas. “But what you don't know is I'm sometimes more fearful when I put this uniform on. I'm gonna tell you a secret, I'm always black—I was born that way, I'm gonna die that way, but I chose to put myself in harm's way with the honorable people who wear these uniforms to protect the people who need us most.”

Recently, the city has worked to cut a more progressive profile. Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, previously served as mayor of Charlotte, operating as a pro-business moderate, though he has governed the state as more of a conservative. The current mayor, Jennifer Roberts, is a Democrat. In 2012, Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention. In early 2016, the city passed an ordinance banning discrimination against LGBT people and requiring that businesses allow transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender with which they identify.

In response, the state General Assembly entered a special session and passed HB2, a controversial law overturning the local ordinance and banning other cities from passing their own. It also required transgender people to use bathrooms in public facilities corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. The backlash to the law has cost the state millions of dollars in economic benefits, many of which would have helped Charlotte, including the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. The contest will be played in New Orleans instead.

The LGBT ordinance highlighted Charlotte’s unusual position in the state. While North Carolina’s cities tend to be far more liberal than rural and suburban areas, this battle represented either Charlotte trying to lead the city in a more progressive, just direction (as its boosters argued) or the latest evidence that Charlotte was a self-righteous metropolis separated from the rest of the state.

It is true that the Queen City has tended to see itself as more progressive and less troubled by the old bonds of race than other cities, which is one reason the riots have shocked residents so much. In July, after the Dallas killings, Putney touted Charlotte’s efforts to fight racial bias.

“We're different in Charlotte, y'all,” he said “And we're a good kind of different. We're a good kind of different.”

It turns out Charlotte wasn’t as different as it believed.