Crime & Courts

When she points to racial bias, Charlotte's most powerful listen

Elisa Chinn-Gary isn’t one to tell some of Charlotte’s most powerful institutions that they need to check themselves for racial bias. She simply shows them why they should.

Armed with statistics, studies and personal experiences, Chinn-Gary and a group she helped start have triggered some stunning results.

▪ Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has revamped its discipline policy and has partnered with police departments around the county to cut on-campus arrests.

▪ The county’s Department of Social Services is analyzing its case files to see if it treats families of all races equally.

▪ Charlotte-Mecklenburg police introduced a program three years ago that has helped reduce juvenile arrests by 22 percent.

Chinn-Gary prefers to remain in the background. After all, she has a big day job.

Now in her second year as Mecklenburg County’s clerk of court, the 47-year-old Winston-Salem native is quietly revamping the courthouse’s largest and least understood office.

In her spare time, Chinn-Gary remains the driving force behind “Race Matters for Juvenile Justice,” a local initiative she helped launch in 2010 to address the divisive issues of race, bias and justice. That effort continues to grow – as does Chinn-Gary’s national reputation for building working partnerships around uncomfortable topics.

The group’s leadership includes judges, lawyers, police, educators, ministers and social service professionals who inform themselves and others on how unconscious judgments based on race, ethnicity and class still permeate the criminal justice system and everyday life.

What started with the juvenile courts now extends to schools, hospitals, corporations – any group willing to consider the effects of bias and race.

During her presentations, Chinn-Gary and fellow volunteers present reams of facts and statistics to show how bias disproportionately affects people of color and the poor – from more school expulsions, arrests and prison sentences to fewer bank loans, poorer health care and even a shorter life.

Former U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins describes Chinn-Gary’s work as “transformational.”

As the public face for such a potentially divisive topic, Chinn-Gary avoids lectures and finger pointing. Family Court Judge Lou Trosch, her co-chair at Race Matters and a frequent speaking partner, singles out Chinn-Gary’s gift for “reasoned deliberations.”

Her former boss, Mecklenburg Trial Court Administrator Todd Nuccio, says Chinn-Gary and Race Matters deliberately avoids “telling people what they need to think and why.” She provides information, he says. Her audiences draws their own conclusions.

The community has begun to take notice. In 2014, the Mecklenburg County Bar honored Chinn-Gary as the Julius L. Chamber’s Diversity Champion. Next month, Race Matters will receive Mecklenburg Ministries’ annual Bridge Builder Award.

Chinn-Gary describes herself as a “critical lover” of the court system – celebrating when it “embraces all those ideals of justice, fairness and equity,” but bearing witness when it fails. “And it fails daily,” she says.

As she spoke, Chinn-Gary sat by a window in the law library of her office. From there, the clerk – the first African-American in Mecklenburg history elected to the job – peers down on dozens of people streaming into the courthouse. Most are black or brown.

Every day, hundreds of public records – 300,000 each year – are filed with her staff. Many of the documents revolve around criminal charges or lawsuits, custody fights and property disputes that can alter, save or wreck a life.

Too often, Chinn-Gary says, the resolution of these matters still hinge on something other than the law.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, African-Americans make up 35 percent of the population but nearly 70 percent of the arrests over the last 10 years. Black drivers are significantly more likely than whites to be stopped and searched.

In minor marijuana cases, minorities are arrested far more often while whites are more likely to be simply ticketed.

There are these statistics, too. In parts of the city, black people make up as much as 90 percent of the crime victims. Those victims identify other African Americans as their assailants up to 91 percent of the time.

While he does not single out Chinn-Gary or Race Matters by name, retired Superior Court Judge Richard Boner says too much talk of racial and ethnic bias among police and the courts sidesteps the importance of personal responsibility.

“I think it’s unfair to indict the entire system and paint anybody with a broad brush,” says Boner. “Are there some officers who are racially biased? I’m sure there are,” he says. “But there a lot more who are color blind. It’s become way too easy to excuse criminal behavior because you think the system is slanted.”

Chinn-Gary sees it differently. Last year, she says, 160 Americans were found to be wrongfully convicted. Most were male and minority. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a 30-year murder case reopened after finding that Georgia prosecutors improperly removed blacks from the jury that sent an 18-year-old African-American teenager to death row for the murder of a white woman.

“Personal responsibility is only one side of the coin,” Chinn-Gary says. Race Matters “is willing to flip the coin and consider both sides. The goal is not to ignore or debate personal responsibility, but to look beyond it.”

Despite some resistance from Race Matters board members, Chinn-Gary pushed to have CMPD at the table from the start. Today, the clerk says, the police remains “a wonderful job partner in ... how to make our system work more equitably for all.”

Yet when Chinn-Gary is asked to address the racial disparities in CMPD traffic stops and marijuana arrests, the voice of the “critical lover” surfaces.

“It shows our need to continue to examine data, and to allow it to inform us about what is happening in our community, and how there is a disproportionate impact on people of color,” she said quietly.

During a presentation with Trosch at a black leadership conference this year, Chinn-Gary turned more descriptive, describing bias as a invisible contaminant.

“When it’s one of two fish floating belly up, there’s something wrong with the fish,” she said.

But if the numbers grow, “Something is in the lake.”

The Fixer

Chinn-Gary may be one of the few elected officials anywhere who avoids talking about herself.

Despite her successful clerk campaign in 2014 and a growing list of appearances for Race Matters, she says she remains “kind of leery on how to tell my personal story.”

She won’t disclose her age. (The Observer tracked it down through public records.) Or the names and ages of her two sons. Or any details about her 23-year marriage, home life and extended family.

However, Chinn-Gary’s willingness to fix stuff from the inside out appears to run in the family. After World War II, her late father Elijah opened an all-purpose repair business to support his wife and six children. In time, his daughter says, he became the guy you called “when anything went wrong.”

As an elementary-school student, Chinn-Gary says she was forced to confront her own biases.

In third grade, she was placed in a gifted class. For the first time, all her classmates and teachers were white. Left to decipher the development for herself, Chinn-Gary says she felt special to be the only black child. But for the wrong reasons.

“The message I was naive enough to believe early on was perhaps the white students were smarter,” she says. “But what was I saying about my friends? What was I saying about my brothers and sisters, the African-American teachers?”

The thought hit her: Maybe she wasn’t smarter than her black friends. Maybe she had only been given an opportunity others did not have.

At UNC Chapel Hill she combined social work with a law degree, and came to Charlotte in 2000 as a legal advocate for children. Before running for clerk two years ago, she served 14 years as Family Court administrator, an essential behind-the-scenes operations manager for court personnel and families alike.

Her affinity for using facts to defuse potentially uncomfortable conversations can surface in surprising ways.

Shortly after she came to Charlotte, Chinn-Gary chose to let her hair go natural, and felt obligated to share the news with her boss.

Nuccio, who is white, expressed surprise that she felt the need to consult him.

Chinn-Gary wasn’t satisfied. Unsure that he grasped all the implications, she compiled a list of discrimination lawsuits from the 1970s filed by black women who wore Afros. She says it was important for both of them that Nuccio fully understood the complexities of her decision.

Asked about the conversation, Nuccio confirms that Chinn-Gary’s arguments “are more driven by fact than emotion.” But he adds: “Values and principles are very much part of the equation.”

An ‘anvil’ moment

Frank talk about race and bias remain difficult. The Race Matters board declined a request by the Observer to cover one of its meetings, with Trosch saying the group did not want the presence of a reporter to alter the candor of its conversations.

After CMPD joined Race Matters, Deputy Chief Vicki Foster says she felt singled out during the group’s discussions over high arrest numbers for black youths.

“At the first meeting ... everybody’s staring at me. Like ‘You’re the reason our kids are in the system,’ ” recalls Foster, who is black. “I said, ‘Listen, this is the way we’ve always done business. Is it right? Well, at the time it was.’

“... Now it’s become more. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What happens to their family if I arrest them? What happens to their opportunity for finding a job?’ You learn from statistics and conversations. They’ve learned some things from me ... We’re trying to be more creative.”

During their joint appearance before the leadership seminar, Trosch and Chinn-Gary used everything from 400 years of American history to the biology of the human brain to discuss bias and its impact.

Trosch also recounted a case in his courtroom involving two teenage friends who used pellet guns to rob a McDonald’s of a small sum of money and some food. Both came from solid families and the same neighborhood. Both had the support of schools and churches.

Except, on the day they were to be in court for the first time, the black teen entered Trosch’s courtroom between deputies, handcuffed and wearing a jail jumpsuit. His white friend, released to his parents after his arrest, walked in with his family and lawyer.

Trosch, who is white, described “the anvil-falling-on-your-head moment” unfolding before him as police, probation officers and other court personnel – both black and white – realized what they’d done.

The judge jailed both teens until their bond hearings.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS