I have never met Hugh McColl. If you’ve lived in Charlotte for a while, he seems to be both myth and legend, right? I have seen him at a few nonprofit events and I saw him in Overstreet Mall several years ago, and I remember thinking “This is the man that built Charlotte” – a descriptor used in certain circles.
Well, actually, the story is that he and four or five other white business leaders are responsible for the Charlotte we now know and have come to question. So when I saw the recent article in Politico Magazine, “Hugh McColl’s Last Investment,” I read it with interest. Now, the title of the article made me cringe a little; it is without regard for socio-political or socio-historical context. But it’s worth reading for two reasons.
First, in recounting an incident from his childhood, McColl says: “And so I think I was the worst kind of racist in that I didn’t even notice it.” That’s a powerful admission. Racism. Structural racism. Implicit Bias. These are all words we say with greater ease these days in settings I would have never imagined. Mr. McColl’s self-description is resounding in that it affirms – despite benevolent acts, pro-social attitudes, being a good person – these conditions persist because we are either actively or unconsciously perpetuating them.
While I really want us to be more active and aggressive in dismantling systemic oppression and structural racism, I want us to be radical in our confrontation and compassionate in our reconciliation. Maybe we are still just acknowledging that some of us have had the privilege of not paying attention. The privilege of not seeing. And, as McColl and others continue to build Charlotte, it has to be with the commitment to see Charlotte with new vision.
Enter new leadership. Enter Braxton Winston and the second reason I thought the article was interesting. I’ve only spoken with council member Winston once, but I know he has become a new aspirational symbol for Charlotte, for the next iteration of living up to our claim as a New South city.
Winston is a millennial. Advocate. Inclusive. Political neophyte. Did it take Mr. McColl’s endorsement to win a seat on Council? (Yes, I believe it did.) And, if so, is that progress? (Yes, I believe it is.) And, is Winston’s subsequent election a proxy for how and who Charlotte wants to be in the future? Let’s hope so.
For far too long, Charlotte has been both bemoaning the fact that we rely on the same leaders who have led for decades while simultaneously failing to cultivate the next generation of leaders. McColl is one leader who has put his money where his talk has been. Change just doesn’t happen. It requires some effort. It also requires audacity. At times when I’m reluctant to advocate, I often remind myself of a James Baldwin quote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
We have to face ourselves. We have to face our community. We have to face our government. We have to face what we’ve seen and what we’ve ignored. If we don’t like what we see and can’t build it ourselves, we have to discover and endorse others.