Charlotte’s ‘Broken System’ Myth

The latest #discussCLT wasn’t meant to make people comfortable



Outgoing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Ann Clark and crowd at last week’s #discussCLT event on ‘How a Broken System Led To Two Charlottes.’

Greg Lacour

It’s pure coincidence, of course, that we held our latest #discussCLT event—titled “How a Broken System Led to Two Charlottes”—the night before a jury in Minnesota acquitted a police officer in the shooting death of Philando Castile last July. That case has, simultaneously, nothing and quite a bit to do with the post-Keith Scott demonstrations in Charlotte in September—protests that left a man dead and laid bare the distances between rich and poor Charlotte, and Charlotte’s reality and Charlotte’s perception of itself.

As most of us have come to realize, those gaps drove the passion in the streets last fall—along with a series of fatal shootings of black people by police and the justice system’s inability or unwillingness to win convictions against the officers. So enter Toussaint Romain, a Mecklenburg County public defender, consistent presence on the streets during the unrest, and Charlottean of the Year. We asked him to be a panel member for a reason. Right from the start, he delivered a necessary dose of reality.

“My friends, the system is not broken,” Romain said. “The system is working as it was designed to work from the founding of the country.”

And that, you have to admit, was a heck of a way to kick off the discussion: Dispense with its premise. Not a thing wrong with that, either. These events aren’t intended to make people comfortable. (Emotionally, that is, although the absence of air conditioning in the back of Lenny Boy Brewing Co. made for an appropriate level of physical discomfort. Lord have mercy, it was hot.)

They’re intended to challenge, spur, perhaps inspire; we’ve been soothing ourselves for too long with pleasant myths about a can-do city and the “Charlotte Way.” So lose this earnest nonsense about the “broken system.” Patterns of rich and poor in Charlotte, of opportunity and the lack of it, is “the result of deliberate decisions decades ago,” said Brian Collier, the Foundation For the Carolinas vice president who shepherded the recent Opportunity Task Force report on solving Charlotte’s inequality problem.

Redlining in the 1930s, highway construction and Urban Renewal in the 1960s and ’70s, and the court-mandated end of school busing in the ’90s helped create the problem. “Deliberate decisions got us here, and deliberate decisions have to get us out of it, and people are going to have to make a few sacrifices,” Collier said. “Every morning, you’ve got to look in the mirror and ask, ‘Am I holding true to my values?’” A storm rolled in just about then. It punctuated Coller’s comments with a sudden downpour and cracks of thunder.

Everyone agrees on the major areas that need attention: Housing costs in a fast-growing city; a lack of low-skill job opportunities; inequity in public schools. Ann Clark, the outgoing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent who oversaw the recent student assignment plan, said she understands how small of a dent the plan alone will make.

“The assignment plan is not transformational. … It’s a question of how disruptive we’re willing to be as a community,” she said. “People talk about ‘those kids,’ and I’m looking around and saying, ‘Whose kids?’ They’re our kids. Unless we change that attitude, we’re not going to be able to advance the ball.”

Systemic change requires systemic solutions. All four panelists, at one point or another, conceded that governmental, business, and philanthropic institutions can do only so much. David Butler, a young black man and creative director for a community nonprofit, asked the essential question: What can I do?

The answer came back: Get in the game. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have dozens of volunteer boards and commissions that often have vacancies, said City Council member LaWana Mayfield. “The answer is, ‘Let us know,’” she said. “Until you stood up and said what you have done, I would never have had a way to know what you’re doing.”

To another questioner, a self-proclaimed “social justice provocateur” named Patrice Funderburg, Mayfield was even more direct: Y’all gotta vote. Funderburg asked a couple of fair questions. One: We’ve been talking about this in Charlotte for years. What’s going to be different this time? The second: I don’t see anybody in here from Southside Homes, a subsidized housing complex just a few blocks away. How can you talk about the two Charlottes when only one of them is in this room?

The questions induced a passionate monologue from Mayfield, the first openly gay Charlotte CIty Council member and only the second black woman. “I have a lot less authority than I ever thought I would have,” she said. When voter turnout rates are in the 30s or lower on Election Day, “you’re basically saying you don’t care.” When you expect elected officials to snap their fingers and fix what’s wrong, you’re ignoring the lessons of history and knowledge of the system you’re decrying. “Hold us accountable,” Mayfield said, “for what we have control of.”

The flip side of that mandate is, as Collier referenced, holding ourselves accountable for what we can do. If the system isn’t broken but working as designed, it doesn’t need fixing. It needs replacement. What are we doing to create one?

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