#discussCLT: Hard Truths About the Two Charlottes

The work to address poverty begins
Foundation For the Carolinas
Foundation For the Carolinas Vice President Brian Collier presents part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force report on Monday.

You can react in a couple of different ways to Monday’s public unveiling of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force’s report, the product of a two-year process, on meeting the needs of the city’s poor.

You can view it with well-honed cynicism over a standard Charlotte practice when the city faces a civic problem: Oh, good, yet another task force report on a bunch of problems we all know about and that this report will do nothing to solve. Or you can see it as perhaps the most wide-ranging, detailed, and honest assessment ever produced about the causes of the gap between rich and poor in Charlotte and the steps needed to close it. There’s some justification for both reactions. Only one will lead anywhere.

The group was formed in May 2015 as a response to a well-publicized 2014 Harvard study, led by researchers Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, that ranked Charlotte last among 50 large American cities in economic mobility—the ability of a child to rise from poverty to affluence in his or her lifetime. This magazine devoted its February 2016 issue to an examination of the problem. The Chetty study outlined the specifics of the issue through data; the causes and repercussions are far more complicated and difficult to grasp, a tangle of roots and branches that’s hard to comprehend, much less unwind.

“If you came to this convocation hoping for a silver bullet to advance the cause, we will disappoint you,” Foundation For the Carolinas President and CEO Michael Marsicano told the crowd that packed the council chamber at the Government Center on Monday morning. “There is no silver bullet.” Tell us about it. But the work starts with facing some hard truths, and the report does an admirable job of that:

  • “The reality is that we are a community clearly segregated by race and income. Long before the Chetty study brought this to our attention, long before the (Keith Scott) protests, a segment of our community already knew the truth: Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s story is a tale of two cities.”
  • “The ethos of bootstrapping, or scaling the socioeconomic ladder through individual effort, hard work, and personal responsibility is, by and large, an idealized narrative.”
  • “Some Task Force members came to the table convinced they knew what the problem was and had the answer to fix it. However, it soon became obvious to all of us we were wrestling with a very complex set of interrelated, systemic, structural and cultural issues that cannot be easily solved.”
  • “We will have to ask ourselves, deliberately and regularly, if we are dismantling the effects of segregation and racialization, and if the foundation we are laying for the future is free of them as well.”
  • “The cumulative effects of systemic racial and economic discrimination, as well as the re-segregation of public schools, have largely maintained and, in some cases, exacerbated a sharply segregated housing market.”
  • “Our community is stellar at supporting charitable causes, but at the end of the day, people tend to retreat to their respective corners of work and home. This continues to perpetuate the segregated nature of our city and strips away the possibility of extending social capital to underserved communities as a means of improving upward mobility.”

And so on. Hard to argue with any of it. And if these conclusions seem obvious to you, consider that the “bootstraps” myth, along with the notion that systemic racism is a thing of the past, drives public policy to this day—now more than ever, in fact. No one doubts that the local policy end of this equation will be a tough and tall building to construct, but at least it won’t be built on a landfill.

The document isn’t a masterpiece. Its intentional eliding of K-12 education, health care, and wage issues are important omissions, even though the task force had solid reasons to exclude them. (Urging the school board to be “courageous” in its approach to student assignment is such an obvious passing of the buck, you have to wonder why it’s in the report at all.) Many of its recommendations depend in whole or in part on cooperation from a state legislature that for now has demonstrated an outright hostility toward North Carolina’s cities, especially Charlotte.

But more than anything, the task force’s conclusions reinforce the need for Charlotte to ditch its attachment to benevolent corporate leadership, its default position for much of the 1990s and 2000s, and embrace a broader, more bottom-up brand of community action. The report concludes with a list of suggestions for all segments of the city, from public officials to nonprofit leaders to religious leaders to individuals. There’s an overall point to the list beyond the suggestions themselves. It’s a statement that the city will rise or fall together, with everyone—rich, poor, privileged, oppressed, idealistic, jaded—taking some responsibility for its future. The message foretells messy and contentious times to come—and the only way out of these badlands.


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