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A More Perfect Charlotte

by Pamela Grundy

April 7,2008

We do not know each other.

Standing across from Philadelphia's Independence Hall, during his landmark speech on race, Sen. Barack Obama spoke this painful, important truth. We do not know each other. And our ignorance harms our communities and our nation. We in Charlotte would do well to listen. He was speaking to us. Sen. Obama traced the history of slavery and race, detailing opportunities both offered and denied. To anyone who knows Charlotte's history, his tale was achingly familiar.

In dramatic demonstration of our country's imperfections, life in Charlotte was once shaped by Jim Crow segregation. Written laws confined blacks to unequal schools, neighborhoods, and public facilities. Unwritten understandings barred them from good jobs. A tightly woven net of customs filled daily life with stark reminders that whites were on top, blacks at the bottom.

In equally dramatic demonstration of our country's potential, determined citizens challenged these inequalities. Working together, visionary blacks and whites eliminated legal segregation and began to open economic and educational opportunities. Between 1959 and 1974, the nation's black poverty rate plummeted from 55 to 31 percent. In 1974, an innovative school busing plan made Charlotte's schools the most desegregated in the nation.

But even as Charlotte's children climbed onto the buses that would bring the city national renown, economic progress came to a sudden halt. Oil prices soared, the economy faltered, and good jobs became harder to find. Poverty rates stopped falling, and began to climb. Those families that had not escaped poverty's grasp by 1974 would find the road to prosperity filled with daunting new obstacles.

In the anxious years that followed, poverty's stubborn persistence bred weariness, resentment and despair. Instead of addressing poverty's root causes, many people gave up. Some began to blame each other

In some circles, it proved far easier to imagine that poor African Americans brought most of their troubles on themselves, because of their shiftless ways.

In some circles, it proved far easier to imagine that bigoted whites spent most of their time successfully plotting to keep African Americans down.

Few people fit these caricatures. But we did not know each other.

These gaps have widened in recent years. In 1999, a federal judge ordered an end to Charlotte's busing plan. A few short years later, poor African American children (along with many recent immigrants) were once again trapped in separate and unequal schools. In 2007, 34 of the county's 93 elementary schools had poverty rates of 70 percent or higher. Thirty of those schools were less than 10 percent white. Only four met school system standards for teacher experience. Only four achieved high academic growth.

The re-emergence of separate and unequal schools has deepened the anger that both whites and African Americans feel about this community's failure to fulfill its democratic promise. It has also produced a degree of hand-wringing. But little has been done to bring people together.

Summits have been held, but few participants have had first-hand experience of poverty. Committees have been formed, but few members have had first-hand experience of high-poverty schools. Vast sums have been spent on school analysis, but high-priced "experts" have lingered in their glass-walled towers, crunching numbers rather than listening to parents. We do not know each other.

If not me, who? If not now, when?

We all need to ask ourselves this question. Today, the challenge of race is the challenge of poverty. This cannot be met from the top down or the bottom up. Rich and poor, black, brown and white, need to work together. We need a broad change of heart, a renewed determination to turn from distractions and confront the unequal opportunities that undermine our nation's promise, and our children's future

This means coming to know each other – our strengths and weaknesses, insights and blind spots. Soldiers fight for their country. They die for their friends. True change requires the stronger commitment – one that reaches well beyond the committee meetings, volunteer hours, and benevolent donations at which Charlotte so excels.

This city's history shows how much can be accomplished when people with different stories come to know each other, and unite for common goals. It also shows the consequences of failing to do so.

We do not know each other. We need to.

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