The ‘Charlotte Uprising’ Has Been A Long Time Coming

The evening of September 20, 2016 began just like any other: I made dinner, got ready for bed, and did a quick Facebook check. But the evening turned tragic when, immediately after logging on, I saw friend after friend after friend sharing a video of a daughter in deep distress. Local police had killed her unarmed father, Keith Lamont Scott, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and she was pleading for the community around her to take notice, to become a voice against ubiquitous racism and casual violence.

My first thought was one that’s become chillingly familiar in the wake of escalating police brutality against black bodies: “not again.” But this time was also different — the community she was pleading with was my own.

I was born in Charlotte and raised in Charlotte, and the houses my great-grandparents walked through, the very neighborhoods of their relatives from decades ago, are now vastly different. I’ve borne witness to its recent — and tremendous — new growth, in addition to its subsequent gentrification, an ever-present American phenomenon that is troubling nonetheless.

Driving down the streets of Charlotte today, it’s difficult not to notice a stark juxtaposition between the past and the present; quaint homes hailing from the 1860s are nestled beside new builds five times their size. Neighborhood food staples, concert halls, and gathering spots have been replaced by rising condominiums, office towers, and parking lots.

While many tout this development as being in the best interest of the city, fiscally and otherwise, the fact is that those living in disadvantaged communities — and disproportionately people of color — have been adversely impacted by these “improvements.”

It is from this position that I realized that the eruption of anger around the death of Keith Lamont Scott — while justified regardless — was simply a gas-bomb upon decades of simmering embers of unrest. To say that the “Charlotte Uprising” has been a long time coming would be a gross understatement, one that patently ignores the systemic racism that has plagued this town since its inception.

Two weeks have passed since the death of Keith Lamont Scott and every day there has been a gathering to bring attention to the rage and growing tensions within the Charlotte community. October 4, 2016 marked the “Charlotte Uprising’s” day of unity and call to action, which asked cities nationwide to stand in solidarity. Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, NYC, Buffalo, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Roanoke, VA, Silverdale, WA and Iowa City all joined the fray.

And the collective anger shows no signs of letting up.


Charlotte has continuously tried to market itself as a beacon of hope for the Southeast, but despite vocal commitments to the championing of LGBT rights and expanding inclusive ordinances, the city is not without its faults — and these faults run deep.

Several years ago, a Harvard study ranked Charlotte dead last of America’s 50 largest cities in terms of upward mobility for children. Just this year, another study found that Charlotte ranks in the bottom 10 of the nation’s 100 largest commuting zones when it comes to upward mobility. The portrait of North Carolina writ large, in fact, is bleak:

▪ Approximately one-third of children born into North Carolina families making less than $25,000 annually are ever able to climb into middle- and upper-income levels as adults.

▪ A family of one parent and one child needs income of $21 an hour to cover basic living expenses in North Carolina, yet only 26% of full-time jobs pay median earnings of that amount.

▪ A child born in Wilson to a family in the bottom 20% of the income distribution has a one in four chance of rising to middle- or upper-income categories. That child is most likely to remain poor for a lifetime.

These dismal rankings have a lot to do with the city’s classist and systemically racist education system. Like all of America, Charlotte was mandated to provide all students with a free and appropriate public education decades ago. But while attention has been given to evening the playing field, the city has nonetheless repeated its history.

“While just 23% of white students in Charlotte attend majority-poverty schools, 77% of black students and 80% of Latino students go to these schools, according to an original analysis of federal data provided by the National Equity Atlas,” reports The Atlantic. “The discrepancy is significant, because high-poverty schools tend to have fewer resources, less-qualified teachers, and weaker parent-volunteer networks than affluent schools. Add to this the fact that black and Latino children in Charlotte are more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty and to experience a range of barriers to economic mobility, and the scope of the problem — and, by extension, the complexity of any solution — balloon.”

In 2010, Waddell, my predominately minority and low-income high school, was closed, causing the abrupt displacement and dispersal of students to other schools. Many of the high school’s students were summarily sent to already overcrowded schools, while their former school, with its brand-new building, was repurposed for elementary and middle school students who were not representative of Waddell’s neighboring community. The change was a distressing example of the city’s disregard for equal education, opportunities, and protections for all.

During the time Waddell High School housed mostly low-income and minority students, it employed fewer licensed and highly qualified teachers than the average for the district. Conditions only improved when it began serving students from higher-income families, as the school’s proportion of disadvantaged students fell from 81.8% to less than 35% over the course of a year. The closing of my high school alongside 10 others displaced more than 25,000 students and the vast majority — greater than 90% — were low income.

Nakisa Glover, community organizer and National Climate Justice Coordinator, speaks on these issues from her own personal experiences. From her time participating in school-based focus groups for the city of Charlotte, she points out:

“The gap is there. On one hand, you have students who live in an affluent neighborhood and their parents are concerned about whether they will have printer ink on the first day of school, but then on the other hand, you have less affluent schools that are concerned about having a teacher on the first day of school. To me that’s very telling of economic inequalities.”

But Charlotte’s racial and economic chasm go far beyond even education. A report from 2010 revealed “clear patterns of segregation” in areas of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. To cite just one example, the wedge of south Charlotte between South Boulevard and Providence Road ranges between 80 and 95% white, while West Charlotte neighborhoods are between 80 and 96% black.

According to the NC Poverty Research Fund, in the city of Charlotte approximately 25% of Hispanic residents and 22% of Black residents are classified as poor by federal standards, compared to only 9% of Caucasians.

The racial segregation has been coupled with economic and racial inequity, as the rift between the white haves and the brown and black have-nots has widened. While 25% of the city’s jobs boast a median rate of $100,000, there are limited opportunities for Charlotte’s poor to advance and enter into the job market.

Of the new companies and job opportunities that are entering Charlotte, many require advanced degrees, and the blue collar job market in Charlotte is severely inadequate proportionate to those seeking jobs; these circumstances offer a decidedly short list of jobs in which low-income families can receive a living wage.


Meanwhile, developers have targeted Charlotte’s oldest black neighborhood of Cherry for new homes. As a result, over the last decade, as the nonprofit Next City noted, “1920s bungalows priced at $200,000 have been replaced with $600,000 California-style single-family homes purchased by wealthy newcomers, many of them white.”

As Dr. Zinobia Bennefield, PhD, professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says, “When you think about low socioeconomic areas that have poor health-care access, poor educational opportunities, food deserts, high crime rates . . . the fact that these areas are disproportionately brown is not by coincidence.”

The underlying intentionality of making vital resources rare among black and brown communities reflects the systemic racism that our very nation is predicated upon.

Dr. Bennefield notes that this inequity can have devastating effects on these communities of color:

“When you move jobs, when you take resources, you create the chronically underemployed, you force them to create an underground economy . . . that can be anything from selling loose cigarettes on the corner to selling drugs to other activities something one might consider illegal. These are not behaviors that are indicative of blackness. Rather they are behaviors indicative of a stratified system.”

In light of these crushing forces, it’s not hard to see why Charlotte’s disadvantaged black and brown residents were poised to strike when the murder of Keith Lamont Scott transpired.

“These keys issues that jump out are systemic to institutional racism — people of color aren’t just protesting police brutality,” says Dr. Bennefield. “They are protesting the question of where is justice? What does justice look like?”

Charlotte has never been a great place for “everyone,” or even the vast majority of its residents. The protests filling the city’s streets, and gaining national attention, are a crystalline expression of this reality. As Dr. Bennefield states, “systemic racism and economic inequality are really two sides of the same coin, and to deal with one, you have to deal with the other.”

Faced with the actuality that the extent of this oppression does not simply begin or end with education, Charlotte is now tasked with taking action. As highlighted by the protests, there is segregation among classes, health-care access, healthy foods, and housing. Only once this is acknowledged as fact can meaningful conversations toward sustainable change happen for the city.

We must motivate our community leaders to deal with the ugly truths of Charlotte; we must ensure the conversation is not simply masquerading as helpful, hyperbolic rhetoric, but is actually progressing us forward.


Lead image: flickr/John Ashley

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