‘Social Engineering,’ You Say?

What it really means, and why it’s a way out of this mess
Chris Edwards

“Social engineering,” as a political science term, entered the language around the turn of the 19th century, when social scientists theorized that industries needed to pay as much attention to the needs of their workforces as their products and buyers. That was the original sense of the term; you could, under that definition, think of human resources departments as social engineering projects.

Over the decades, it evolved to mean something else. Nowadays, it’s generally used as Republican N.C. Rep. Scott Stone of Charlotte did last week when he criticized Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ proposed student assignment plan—as a pejorative referring to attempts to more evenly distribute public resources. There’s plenty to take issue with in the assignment plan. For a supposed effort to break up concentrations of poverty in CMS, it changes little, keeping most neighborhood and high-poverty schools as they are. But that’s not what Stone objected to. He said he wants the school board to delay its vote, scheduled for Wednesday, until the replacement for retiring Superintendent Ann Clark takes over.

That’s his stated reason, anyway. His use of “social engineering” gives away his real issue. “Social engineering is the attempt by legislators to change the operations of institutions or the behaviour of individuals in order to achieve a politically determined goal,” the British political philosopher Julian Baggini has written. “That may sound sinisterly manipulative, but the only way to avoid it altogether is to end politics.”

Other people have already taken Stone to task for his use of the term and his threat to induce legislators to inject themselves into CMS affairs. But there’s a bigger point here: Whether you want to call it social engineering or something else, public policy through the decades has determined who’s benefitted from living in Charlotte and who hasn’t, and who lives on either side of that line to this day.

The widespread practice of redlining—the federal government’s classification of individual properties’ credit risk, essentially determining who qualified for mortgages—split Charlotte in two in the late 1930s. Neighborhoods with black residents were automatically deemed highest-risk, all but assuring banks wouldn’t lend money to homeowners there. A map from the era shows high-risk properties to the north and west of uptown, the lowest risk to the south and east—the general pattern of haves and have-nots that persists in 2017. Urban renewal projects in the 1960s and early 1970s destroyed established black communities—including Brooklyn, in what’s now Second Ward—and ran highways through others, such as Biddleville and McCrorey Heights, which the Brookshire Freeway separated in 1971.

We’ll be discussing the gap between affluent and poor in Charlotte at our next #discussCLT event June 15 at Lenny Boy Brewing Co., trying to gain some insight into what provided the fuel for the post-Keith Scott unrest in Charlotte last year. You can’t hope to understand where we are and where we can go without grasping where we’ve been and why we’ve been there. And if it’s social engineering that’s gotten us into this hole, it might take reverse social engineering to get us out.


Categories: #discussclt, DiscussCLT Conversation