Patrick Cannon

Where to from here, black Charlotte?

This is the day that all of Black Charlotte hoped would never come.

We watched as African American mayors in Detroit, Atlanta and most recently New Orleans were led to prison, stained by allegations of public corruption. But here in Charlotte, things would be different.

Or so we thought.

With our expanding skyline and 21st century economy, Charlotte – the envy of the South and the hope of America -- would show the naysayers what black leaders could do when put in charge of a city not already crumbling from rust and corruption.

Our chests swelled high when our humble town was picked to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Who could have imagined it – the nation’s first black president coming to accept his second-term nomination in a New South city where government is firmly in the hands of slaves’ descendants?

We had so much riding on those we put into office.

Then came Wednesday’s crushing blow – the arrest of Patrick Cannon on federal charges alleging that he took and solicited bribes, first as mayor pro tem and later as mayorright there in the Government Center, no less.

Reading the government’s 48-page complaint was like reading porn – clandestine meetings, an all-expense-paid trip to Las Vegas, shadowy investors, secret apartments and a briefcase stuffed with cash. Oh, my!

Black Charlotte was devastated, and understandably outraged.

Aside from his resignation letter, we’ve heard no word from our former mayor, who deserves his day in court and presumption of innocence.

That said, there’s no denying the damage that’s been done.

We know instinctively that dishonest pols come in every color. But based on our experience as black Americans, we also know that Cannon’s arrest will sully the image of black leadership in ways that the arrest and conviction of former North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black never did for white leaders. Our parents warned us of this double standard as children.

In November 2009, when Anthony Foxx defeated John Lassiter to become the city’s second African American mayor, I wrote a column under the headline “Charlotte’s last white mayor.” I took the bold step of proclaiming that Pat McCrory, who served a record seven terms over 14 years, would be our city’s last “white” mayor -- the last candidate who could effectively brush aside the concerns of Charlotte’s black voters.

In the years since then, nothing has happened to change my assessment of Charlotte’s political future. In a city where the African American population was 35 percent and growing in 2010, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites dipped below 50 percent for the first time. That was four years ago.

In other words, people of color now hold the power to shape Charlotte’s political and economic destiny.

So where do we go now?

Regrettably, the opportunists among us will use Cannon’s arrest to hurl racial barbs, declaring that Charlotte will soon go the way of cities like Atlanta and Detroit. We can do little to prevent such racist code speak. What we can do -- what we must do -- is never live up to that claim by squandering our legacy of clean government.

We must commit ourselves to excellence in government, in business and in all of our community endeavors. The nation is watching, Black Charlotte, and some are expecting us to fail.

As the case against Cannon plays out in court, other embarrassing allegations will surely emerge. Lick our wounds if we must, but let us not be sidetracked, lest we lose sight of our collective responsibility -- to continue building a first-rate city that works for our children and all of its varied and diverse residents.

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