After one of the most challenging months in Charlotte’s history, when protests, looting, tear gas and the National Guard filled uptown streets, Charlotte business leaders said Tuesday that the city can’t return to business as usual.
And they said that the “Charlotte way,” the city’s semi-mythical aura of cooperation, civic engagement and civil dialogue, hasn’t worked to solve deep-seated issues of race, inequality and school segregation in the city.
“If we just mouth platitudes, and think everything’s going to be fine, it’s not...It can’t be our normal way of doing things,” said Hugh McColl Jr., former chairman of Bank of America and one of the main architects behind the city’s rise.
Speaking at a Charlotte Chamber retreat here, he pointed to inequalities in jobs, incomes and housing, especially in the face of gentrification. “We’re dealing with prejudice that takes the form of not caring,” McColl said.
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Harvey Gantt, who made history when he was elected as Charlotte’s first black mayor in 1983, said he was surprised to see the protests and violence on television following the Sept. 20 shooting death of a black man by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.
“I saw something I never thought I’d see in Charlotte,” said Gantt, who joined McColl in the discussion on stage.
“That kind of thing could never happen here,” he said of his thoughts before the protests.
Gantt reflected on how the community has changed and grown more complex since the day when Charlotte’s “two rich uncles” (the banks) called the shots. In contrast with his time as mayor, Gantt said new groups of leaders from outside the city’s traditional power structure are more important than ever.
“I didn’t recognize the people that were on MSNBC,” said Gantt. When he was mayor, Gantt said he used to brag: “If there was a real crisis in the community, I could, inside of two hours, identify every significant leader and get them in the mayor’s conference room.”
The Charlotte Chamber’s annual planning retreat, held at Asheville’s Omni Grove Park Inn, is the first major meeting of the business community since the sometimes-violent protests that started hours after Keith Lamont Scott was shot to death by a CMPD officer.
The discussion was an unusually frank examination of race, inequality and school segregation in Charlotte at a forum that’s typically focused on drier issues such as bond issues and economic development plans.
Police said that Scott had a gun, but social media quickly spread allegations that Scott had been holding a book. Much like other cases in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Dallas, protesters were soon filling streets. The explosion of anger surprised many in the business community, who looked to Charlotte’s long history of avoiding major, overt racial unrest and riots from the civil rights era onward as an assurance that the city is somehow different.
“We can make all kinds of speeches, but the truth of the matter is we had our hands forced,” said McColl. “No matter how much we tried, we failed.”
Gantt said it’s time for Charlotte to address “the cancerous effects of racism.” Although the civil rights movement elevated many, Gantt said many other African Americans didn’t benefit as much.
“We have a smaller but just as important group of folks who were left behind,” said Gantt. “We tried to do the best we could...We couldn’t gainsay the fact that there’s anger out there that’s real.”
McColl challenged local business leaders to expand programs to hire more minorities and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools graduates through apprenticeship programs, and called on banks to extend credit to minority small-business owners. Gantt called for a “reconciliation commission” to address the effects of racism, and both men said the city needs to find ways to build more affordable housing.
They also pointed to CMS, which has become markedly more separated by race since the end of mandatory busing programs in 2000. Last year, data showed, 53,000 students at CMS attend schools that are 90 percent non-white. More than 60 percent of CMS’s white students attend 39 majority-white schools.
Jesse Cureton, chief consumer officer for Novant Health, said solutions can’t simply be decided on and delivered from a select group of leaders and nonprofits, as has often been the case in Charlotte.
“There was a time when this discussion would have been blasphemous,” in Charlotte, Cureton said. “This cannot be the established corporate community bringing it (solutions and programs) to the community.”
On the first night of protests, Sept. 20, protesters chanted for justice and an end to police violence on Old Concord Road in the University City area, before some in the crowd smashed two police vehicles. Officers in riot gear used tear gas and flash bangs to disperse the crowd, which eventually moved to block Interstate 85, setting fire to the contents of a tractor trailer early in the morning of Sept. 21.
The next evening hundreds of protesters gathered uptown. What started as a peaceful march turned violent, with people smashing windows and looting uptown stores such as the Charlotte Hornets team store, Jimmy John’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. Justin Carr, a protester, was shot in the head and in front of the Omni hotel on Trade Street and later died. CMPD arrested another man in the crowd, Rayquan Borum, and charged him with the killing.
Brian Roth, vice president of Pappas Properties, echoed the sentiments of many at the retreat.
“We don’t know our whole city,” said Roth. “We need to change this – badly.”