some of us are brave
I have watched many cities burn over the past two years.
I cried over Ferguson.
I cried over Baltimore.
But there’s nothing like seeing your hometown on social media with a hashtag.
I don’t want to talk about my family and friends. Worrying about them keeps me up at night. I don’t want to talk about.
I am only giving myself permission to think about Charlotte in public, not feel. Feeling is for private.
The first night of protesting I remarked that we don’t do this in Charlotte. I didn’t mean that we don’t do the kind of inequality that defined Ferguson. We do. I didn’t mean that we don’t do the kind of urban warfare between citizens and police that defined Baltimore. I didn’t mean that we don’t do extra-judicial murder. I have written about Johnathan Ferrell. I know that we do.
I meant that Charlotte does not have the deep, varied social organizing culture to quickly mobilize mass actions. We are not Chicago.
We certainly have a robust civic community. But, that isn’t the same thing.
In many ways, our lack of organizational infrastructure has been a point of pride. We didn’t have it because, the story went, we didn’t need it.
I was a volunteer when Charlotte began branding itself as the “first county to declare independence from Great Britain”. That was about ten years ago now. The city boosters held these events trying to sell us this new story of Mecklenburg County. They had historical actors and fancy movies and sausage dogs on platters with $5 beers. It was a big to-do.
Being culturally sensitive sophisticates, the presentation I saw had a section about black Mecklenburg citizens. It described how Charlotte had peacefully integrated when white business owners realized that racism was bad for business.
That was the story that Charlotte sold.
I grew up attending evidence of Charlotte’s great integrationist past: West Charlotte Senior High School. My historically black high school was one of the most well respected, best funded and competitive in the state when I attended. You knew that was true because white people fought to get their children enrolled. I went to school with white boys named Trip and Helms. We were fancy.
We were part of the story that Charlotte sold.
How does the new south city that was too busy to hate and too polite to brag about it (unlike Atlanta) turn into what we’ve seen the last two nights?
How is my city now in the annals of hashtag history that will largely define this era of racist violence, social movements, and hopefully, change?
A few ideas on that:
As David A. Graham writes in The Atlantic, Charlotte’s structural reality has moved faster than its cultural ideology.
For my money, three things happened that created a perfect storm for what feels like a rapid and cataclysmic restructuring of a city’s entire history, identity, and reality.
It is almost impossible to overstate the effect of “neighborhood schools” or the reversal of busing that created the West Charlotte High School that I graduated from. Graham and others point this out.
It also matters when that happened. At the tail end of the 1990s, Charlotte was starting to wake up to the telecom driven financial bubble bursting. As a banking town and a town that had invested heavily in attracting telecom companies (e.g. Sprint), the city felt the hit. But we didn’t all feel it the same way.
As I point out in my book Lower Ed, believe it or not (Charlotte is a field site), black folks were hit hard by that bubble bursting. Good-paying jobs that didn’t require the level of credit and security clearance that bank jobs did declined rapidly.
Incomes took a hit and all of those folks who had entered the mortgage market relied heavily on homes to stay afloat.
Then things leveled out but the next bubble was forming.
Again, we’re a banking town.
The mortgage bubble was coming.
People who were still recovering from the telecom bubble bursting were drawn into mortgage related jobs and into the mortgage market.
This is happening as schools are resegregating.
Cheap mortgages and stagnating black wages but rebounding white wages would accelerate residential segregation.
And that seems to be what happened.
That’s the second event.
The third event is what follows: rapid transit that contours the existing patterns of racial and class residential segregation. In fill development follows that.
In twenty years, the fragile economic conditions that had allowed us the hubris to rewrite our history as a racial accommodation fairytale went up in smoke.
That stretch of Old Concord Road where the police killed Keith Lamont Scott is not the hood, as we imagine it in popular culture. It is residential, almost country by city standards. It is also nowhere near the new light rail blazing through that part of town a couple miles west. Soon it is easy to imagine the area’s dozen or so housing developments feeling like it is a million miles away from the rest of Charlotte.
I was surprised to see my city burning but I shouldn’t have been.
It is always burning where my people are.