Columns

Kumar ’17: The Queen City loses its crown

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, October 7, 2016

I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina when I was two years old and lived there until coming to Brown three years ago. I thought I knew it well: the medium-sized “Queen City” leading the way for the New South with its big banks, beautiful trees and outsize airport. Over the past two decades, I’ve borne witness to its population explosion and the accompanying transformation of its downtown — referred to as “Uptown” for obscure reasons — glittering neighborhoods and painfully congested roads. “Growth” and “change” are the buzzwords on the tip of every Charlottean’s tongue.

In April I wrote a column (“Kumar ’17: Notes from North Carolina,” April 12) about the recently passed HB2, which garnered wrathful attention from the entire country for its efforts to regulate bathroom use. But that was a state law that reflected poorly on North Carolina, while Charlotte emerged from the debacle as a beacon of progress. Gov. Pat McCrory and the leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly have also yet to repeal the law. It was Charlotte’s recently passed anti-discrimination ordinance, after all, that had provoked the passage of HB2 in the first place. My consternation over North Carolina’s fall from grace was assuaged by the seemingly unbreakable success of its largest city.

Recently, though, I have been rediscovering — and reevaluating — my home city in a different light. Charlotte became the latest battleground in today’s civil rights movement after the Sept. 20 fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer. Protesters clashed with police for several nights following the shooting in demonstrations that turned to rioting. McCrory declared a state of emergency, and Facebook controversially turned on Safety Check. A dramatic photograph of a line of police officers in front of a local bus with the destination “NOT IN SERVICE” circulated widely. Charlotte was no longer immune to the racial tensions that have roiled the country in the past few years, and no one could deny it.

At first, my reaction to the situation in Charlotte was muted as I worked through it in my head. What did it say about my home city that black Charlotteans and their allies felt compelled to demonstrate against injustice on multiple nights? The business-centric Charlotte with which I was familiar had never been particularly political compared to the capital, Raleigh, and the rest of the Research Triangle, home to Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Many of my Charlotte friends who rarely post on Facebook shared impassioned statuses about their personal reactions to the unfolding events and the need to make a change. I realized that I had to wake up to the reality of the situation — a city far more complicated and troubled than the Queen City I had idealized.

Earlier this week I read a New Yorker article, “The Desegregation and Resegregation of Charlotte’s Schools” by Clint Smith, that helped me to reconceptualize the city and better understand its problems. In the article, Smith argues that Scott’s shooting did not occur in a vacuum, but in a deeply segregated city where the public school system has gradually resegregated over the past 20 years. Beginning in the late 1960s, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools introduced an exemplary mandatory busing program to integrate schools, but a series of decisions since the turn of the millennium has erased that progress. Smith points out the multiple benefits of integrated schools — including a closer community, stronger economy and less crime — before concluding on the point that maintaining schools sharply divided along racial lines is a conscious, collective choice implemented via the legal system and housing policy.

Indeed, the resegregation of Charlotte schools is symptomatic of broader racial and socioeconomic divisions in the city. A New York Times map from May 2015 identifies Mecklenburg County — where Charlotte is located — as “extremely bad for income mobility for children in poor families.” A 2013 Washington Post study of “Super Zips” — zip codes with high levels of income and education — identifies a zip code in Charlotte that ranks in the 99th percentile of all zip codes in the country. Mere minutes away are two zip codes positioned at the fourth and seventh percentiles, respectively. In the context of such stunning inequality in such close geographic proximity, it’s no wonder that tensions boiled over in the wake of Scott’s shooting.

Growing up in Charlotte, hints of this disparity were always present. Once, when driving home from the airport, my sister and I took a wrong turn and were shocked by the dilapidation we saw. How could such extreme poverty exist in the same city as the shining new skyscrapers of Uptown or the rapidly growing suburbs to the South? I always attended public school, and my schools were among the more diverse in the city. But even my high school became more racially homogeneous during my time there, and visits to other high schools in the system revealed even greater levels of resegregation. The signs of Charlotte’s divisions have been there all along, whether or not we chose to admit it.

At Brown, it’s easy to feel removed from the struggles of a midsize southern city like Charlotte — even for a longtime Charlottean like me. But it’s important to keep in mind that Charlotte’s problems, like segregation and inequality, are common to cities all across the country (Providence included). Rather than wait for these problems to culminate in crisis, we should all take steps to bring our communities together now, whether through government policy like school desegregation or individual action. As Smith points out in his article, we are all responsible for the society we create.

Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at nikhil_kumar@brown.edu.

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