This story was produced with support from the City Accelerator program.
Charlotte, N.C., is a study in contradictions. It’s a booming success story of the New South, a corporate and financial center with gleaming high-rises, museums, green spaces and an expanding light rail system. At the same time, the city still struggles to escape its history of racial segregation. Schools and neighborhoods still break along racial lines, and a 2014 Harvard-UC Berkeley study ranked Charlotte last in economic mobility among the nation’s 50 largest cities. Some in the city’s African-American community have likened Charlotte’s glassy office towers and sports arenas to a “glimmering, fake Oz.”
City officials want to change that disparity. They’re trying to do that in multiple ways, including a city-county Opportunity Task Force that was created in response to the Harvard-UC Berkeley study. The group released its first report in March of this year, laying out 21 strategies, 91 recommendations and 100 tactics, including calls to stabilize families, foster greater access to education and to create “social capital.” “This report marks the beginning of our work; a blueprint for us to work together,” Mayor Jennifer Roberts said at the report’s release in March. “We are not going back to business as usual.” (The speed of implementing that blueprint has frustrated some; the Charlotte Observer reported that six months after the initial report, “little has happened.” No executive director or other staff had been hired; no funding had been dedicated, and there was no agreement on what indicators would be used to measure success, according to the paper.)
Charlotte is also trying to address economic mobility through its procurement policies, notably the Charlotte Business INClusion office, whose goal is to increase competition and participation among the city’s minority, women and small businesses enterprises (MWSBEs). That program is already having an impact, achieving $41 million in spending with MWSBEs in fiscal 2016, according to the mayor’s office.
Now the city will focus on growing its INClusion efforts even more, as a 2017 participant in the City Accelerator program, a joint initiative from Governing, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities, through which Charlotte will receive coaching, technical assistance and a $100,000 grant to improve its procurement strategies even more.
Like many cites in the South – and indeed across the country – Charlotte’s history has been shaped in part by race and intentionally segregationist policies. Racial inequality “didn’t just happen,” says Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett, the author of Sorting the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. “It was invented.”
At the end of the Civil War, Charlotte’s working-class neighborhoods were a “salt-and-pepper” mix of white and black residents living side by side, Hanchett says. But by the turn of the 20th century, Jim Crow policies on voting, housing and employment had split the city into distinct neighborhoods separated by race.
Charlotte was by no means unique, of course. “Like every other American city, Charlotte is a place with economic and racial segregation,” Hanchett says. “They were the results of layers of policy decisions and policy actions over the last century and a quarter. But Charlotte isn’t worse or any better than anywhere else.”
The city hopes it can address at least some of that through its outreach to minority businesses. Out of the $41 million in city contracts that went to MWSBEs last year, most of it – $34 million – went to small businesses owned by whites. Only $4.4 million in contracts went to African American-owned firms. Hispanic-owned firms earned $1.3 million, and Native American- and Asian-owned firms totaled another $1.3 million. At the end of 2016, the city had nearly 1,000 MWSBEs registered in its vendor database, a 10 percent increase over the year before.
Now the city wants to increase those numbers across the board. It’s not an easy task, especially given the community’s history of racial inequities. But as Mayor Roberts said in a statement earlier this year, Charlotte is “committed to providing equal access and opportunities for all businesses to grow, especially businesses owned by people of color.”