To understand Charlotte’s rage, you have to understand its roads

The long, winding history that led up to this week’s unrest.

The interstate where protesters in Charlotte made a stand Tuesday played a major role in shaping the city’s inequities. CREDIT: CNN/Screencap
The interstate where protesters in Charlotte made a stand Tuesday played a major role in shaping the city’s inequities. CREDIT: CNN/Screencap

Anger smoldered in Charlotte this week after police there killed 40-year-old Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday afternoon.

Tuesday night protests that originated near the site of Scott’s death eventually migrated a few miles west, where people poured onto Interstate 85, blocked traffic, and lit a fire that attracted huge national news attention.

Protesters clashed with police for a second night Wednesday, this time in the commercial zone at the heart of the city. The protests began peacefully but turned violent after one protester was shot and rumors swirled about who had fired on him.

As another group of people blocked Interstate 277 downtown that night, the governor called in the National Guard.

Officials are calling for calm, but refusing to publicly release videos showing the circumstances of Scott’s death, which they describe as tragic but justified. Scott’s family, who reviewed the footage Thursday evening with their attorneys, say it leaves “more questions than answers.”

Protesters defied a midnight curfew Thursday for a largely peaceful third night of demonstrations. I-277 was again a flashpoint, with police firing pepper balls to clear protesters who blockaded it for about 10 minutes.

If you’re looking for the embers of this week’s highway fires, you’ll find them in the shadows of the high-speed freeways that criss-cross the city, in communities most drivers will never stop to visit.

Charlotte has a long and complicated racial history. But the city leaders urging calm this week, and pointing to a legacy of community cooperation across racial lines, aren’t engaged in a PR-speak charade. Integration and empathy have been present in the city’s DNA since almost as soon as the end of slavery made them possible at all.

Over the past century-and-a-half since then, however, Charlotte’s black communities have had a lot to endure. Today, the city is marked by the same inequities — educational, economic, social — that define America as a whole.

To understand Charlotte’s long slide from modeling integration to typifying division, and the specific set of circumstances that led to an eruption in the streets this week, you have to understand the history of the highways where protesters have seized national attention.

The roads that shape modern Charlotte

Map today’s steeply segregated Charlotte by racial demographics and you’ll get something that looks like Pacman’s silhouette running downhill. The white populace is heavily concentrated within one triangular slice of the city’s south end, between South Boulevard and Providence Road.

Neighborhoods there are 80 to 95 percent white. Wind clockwise around the city’s face from South Boulevard, however, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find census tracts where the white population even cracks 30 percent.

These are the domain of Charlotte’s black folk, neighborhoods that cling to the sides of the giant interstates that chisel the city apart from itself.

I-77 blades north and south through town, its shadows harboring almost all-black neighborhoods. Its twin monster, I-85, slithers east-west across the city. On the west side, dozens of minority-majority communities cling to 85’s hips.

Charlotte metropolitan area demographic map. The darkest blues represent the highest concentrations of white residents. CREDIT: mcmap.org
Charlotte metropolitan area demographic map. The darkest blues represent the highest concentrations of white residents. CREDIT: mcmap.org

The eastern reaches of 85, where protesters stood their ground and lit fires on the night Keith Scott was killed, snake past the much newer University City neighborhood, one of Charlotte’s few genuinely diverse neighborhoods today.

In the center of town, choked in a tangle of interchanges and off ramps, there’s the old heart of Charlotte. For most of the 19th century, those four wards were all there was to Charlotte.

Now they’re belted in by I-277, the highway loop that walls in the city’s commercial center and that protesters briefly blockaded during the second night of unrest this week.

Charlotte’s current social geography isn’t sustainable — at least not if the city is to retain its progressive reputation as the capital of a “new South.”

“My heart breaks, man, because I have a love affair with this city,” James Ford, an education activist who moved south six years ago and was named North Carolina Teacher of the Year in 2015, told ThinkProgress. “This city has adopted me warmly and been incredibly good to my family. But the rate at which it’s growing, we have to be very intentional about who we wanna be when we grow up.”

The way it was

Charlotte didn’t always look like this. After the Civil War and emancipation, as Charlotte started to expand from a quiet inland trading hub to the metropolis it is today, those wards were more like a racial checkerboard of neighborhoods.

In fact, back then, the city’s makeup was practically opposite to the racially segregated neighborhoods in the background of the fires and smashed windows that catch the eye of today’s TV news producers.

A century and a half ago, as Abraham Lincoln pardoned Confederates and entrusted the South’s future peace to southerners themselves, Charlotte was one of several southern burgs where class solidarity briefly trumped racial division, local historian Tom Hanchett, author of Sorting Out the New South: Race, Class and Urban Development in Charlotte, told ThinkProgress.

Poor whites made common cause with recently freed slaves, dubbed theirs the Fusion movement, and chased enough wealthy whites out of office in North Carolina to hold sway over state politics for almost a generation.

“They came together with ordinary white folks and voted out the men of property and standing. The landowners, the railroad owners, many of them former slaveowners, got voted out of both houses of the legislature and also the governor’s chair in 1896,” Hanchett said. “They started doing things to help the little guy.”

The Fusion movement redrafted the state constitution, including a passage aimed at guaranteeing working-class economic security long before the American labor movement began.

“Jim Crow was in Charlotte just like it was in any other place. The way that people dealt with that just looks different here.”

Monied whites had their revenge soon enough. A political reformation explicitly labeled the “White Supremacy Campaign” broke the cross-racial class solidarity and swept the old guard — many of them former slaveowners — back into power in 1898. These wealthy racists codified segregation, effectively grafting it onto the civic DNA of a city that had previously seen something like harmony.

“By 1900 there were enough folks peeled away from the Fusion that they passed a new constitution with voter suppression measures,” said Hanchett. The supremacists installed poll taxes and literacy tests, consolidating their power enough to forcibly segregate society.

With the backlash in turn-of-the-century Charlotte, Hanchett said, “you were seeing segregation for the first time. And not just in neighborhoods, but everything.” Jim Crow laws began to spring up in public accommodations and civic institutions alike. In 1900, the city courthouse even started using two different bibles to swear in black and white witnesses.

Despite its leaders’ long embrace of Jim Crow, the city has retained a reputation as a place defined by diversity and community, said Cheryl Hicks, an associate professor at UNC Charlotte whose research focuses on African American history.

“There’s a history of Charlotte being a kind of moderate southern city where there’s a real emphasis on interracial coalitions and people working things out,” Hicks said in an interview. “Jim Crow was in Charlotte just like it was in any other place. The way that people dealt with that just looks different here.”

The public policy that gutted black prosperity

Charlotte was a boomtown for much of its early history. But while the city’s many expansions have always been a rising tide for white boats, the city’s black communities have had a much rougher ride.

As Charlotte spread geographically in the Jim Crow days and began to resemble the rhombus-like metropolis it is today, civic leaders and private citizens alike conspired to bar black Charlotte from a full share of the prosperity.

Land in the suburbs that sprung up as the city expanded past what is now the I-277 inner beltway was kept out of black hands through racial covenants. Racist federal housing policies drew red lines across land maps all over the U.S., including Charlotte.

On the second night of protests, people briefly blockaded the downtown loop highway that helped gut multiple prosperous black communities many decades ago. CREDIT: WSOC/Screencap
On the second night of protests, people briefly blockaded the downtown loop highway that helped gut multiple prosperous black communities many decades ago. CREDIT: WSOC/Screencap

Generations of explicit segregation and overt economic repression of black people snuffed out the integration era of Charlotte’s history. But it didn’t destroy black Charlotte. “African-Americans were handed lemons, and they made lemonade,” said Hanchett. “If we can’t be in the white section, we’re gonna create a city within the city.”

Middle-class black communities thrived in neighborhoods like Brooklyn — home to the first free black library in the whole south — and McCrorey Heights. Racist land laws and housing finance policies put a hard cap on how much wealth any black family could truly accumulate, but Charlotte’s African-American communities were as upwardly mobile as circumstances allowed anywhere in the early 20th century.

“Economic segregation was already coming into focus. But the interstates created moats.”

What white power couldn’t destroy for decades, the roads soon did. When time came to build the country’s interstate highways, the engineers who consulted local politicians on where they should pave found a swift answer: the Brooklyns and McCrorey Heightses of many American cities were split apart, torn down, and dismantled in the name of transportation progress.

The black doctors and university professors who lived in McCrorey Heights used to be able to walk to work at Johnson C Smith University while their kids walked to school at Biddleville Elementary, down a street lined with black-owned businesses.

“A new expressway went through in the 1960s, wiped out a street of houses, wiped out the school, wiped out the businesses,” said Hanchett. “Economic segregation was already coming into focus. But the interstates created moats.”

When the road projects scattered black Charlotte, it wasn’t like people could just transplant their communities wholesale and start over en masse. Some were left behind in half-communities bottled in by roads.

Those directly displaced by public works projects across the country often found it impossible to replace what they lost, UNCC historian Hicks said.

“When you lose a community and lose your home, then you’ve got to find another space. And some of those spaces are segregated. That’s a real issue for a lot of the residents in Charlotte.”

President Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, was born in a Charlotte newly defined by the racist schemes of the white politicians who treated the highway projects as an opportunity to dissolve black solidarity. “I grew up living with those barriers, even though I had no idea how they came to be or what they really meant,” he said in a speech in March.

He also quoted a pre-highway editorial from a local paper where city fathers made their designs on neighborhoods like Brooklyn plain. “Far-sighted men believe that eventually this section, because of its proximity to the center of the city, must sooner or later be utilized by the white population,” they wrote in 1912.

Foxx, who would go on to serve as mayor in his hometown prior to joining the cabinet of the first black president, is using his authority today to push for smarter infrastructure policy that connects communities instead of limiting their prospects.

But the damage done by roads like the ones seeing fiery civic resistance late at night this week is deep. The racists who recrafted cities all around the country to be hostile to black prosperity are mostly dead now. Their legacy endures in inner-city poverty, rampant economic insecurity, and the devilishly persistent racial wealth gap.

“There are certain ingredients to chaos”

After decades of bearing up under those pressures, as diversity and understanding frayed in Charlotte, the city became primed for a meltdown.

James Ford lives near the campus of UNC-Charlotte, and appreciates the opportunities and multiculturalism afforded to his family by life in one of Charlotte’s newer areas. “It adds a level of vibrancy to the locality,” Ford, the education activist, said.

Keith Scott was killed by a black officer about two miles from where Ford’s family lives. When a white cop from the same department killed Jonathan Ferrell in 2013, it was about two miles away in the other direction. The proximity didn’t surprise him, he said, but the killings were especially disappointing “given all the work that I know Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD has been doing around racial biases in their system.”

University City bustles and hums, but Ford bears no illusions about Charlotte as a whole. Since 2001, the city has increased its share of intensely segregated schools, defined as schools whose students are more than 90 percent non-white. When Harvard researchers published a paper called Where Is The Land Of Opportunity a few years ago, he said, “Charlotte ranked dead last.”

Numbers like that make events like this week’s all but inevitable. “Nothing about that data supports the image of a progressive city, and yet we have been able to maintain that image,” he said.

Somehow the city didn’t burn when a white cop shot Jonathan Ferrell under much bleaker circumstances in 2013, or when that same cop escaped a conviction last year when his jury deadlocked and prosecutors dropped the case. But, like a meteorologist bracing for an overdue storm of the century, Ford suspected something like this week was coming.

“There are certain ingredients to chaos,” he said, noting that two of the five principle factors Harvard researchers focused on in their Where Is The Land Of Opportunity paper were schools and segregation. “Many of us aren’t surprised.”

Of course, people don’t have to be surprised to be outraged. And, well before Tuesday’s shooting, watching police around the country kill often-unarmed black men and women with impunity was becoming too much for the students Hicks teaches in her history courses.

“They are traumatized by the national events, and then it happened here. They are angry. I’ve heard students say they fear being black,” she said. “Dr. King said a riot is the language of the unheard. So when you think about why folks are doing what they’re doing — whether everyone agrees with how they’re doing it or not — they don’t feel heard.”

Even as much of America slowly wakes up to the true depth of the nation’s institutional racism, and attitudes toward police violence become gradually more enlightened, the risk of the same kind of retrenchment that broke up the Fusion movement in the late 1800s is growing.

That movement first faltered after a devastating nationwide recession in 1893, according to Hanchett, though it would take years for elite white racists to complete their political revenge.

“Have you noticed that our politics has gotten a bit more ugly lately? A willingness to blame ‘them’ for our troubles?”

“Well,” the historian said, “same thing happened in the 1890s.”