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Black politics in Charlotte 101

A crash course for white people

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The racially charged fallout from the sheriff's election has the Charlotte establishment wringing its hands. Where did this animosity come from? Why now, when the Queen City has long avoided the racial clashes that have plagued other cities?

They're stumped. Or, more likely, they are pretending to be.

Establishment-backed feel-good groups like the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee and the Community Building Initiative put out panicked press releases last week, begging for calm as the community resolves the question of whether Nick Mackey, a black candidate who won a party election to fill out the former sheriff's term, will be allowed to assume office.

The release begged the community for calm and suggested that this must all be the product of some sort of unacknowledged racial animosity that has been boiling under the surface, a situation we could work through if we'd all just come to the table and blah, blah, blah.

I'm sure Charlotte's got as much submerged racial tension as any other mid-sized city, but that's not the whole story here. The sheriff fiasco has much more to do with flexing political muscle then it is does with Mackey's so-called civil rights. If Mackey's quest for sheriff wasn't at the center of it, some other issue soon would have been.

This is, at its heart, a political numbers game. Less than 15 years ago, 22 percent of Charlotte's registered voters were African-American. Now, black voters make up a third of the electorate. In terms of political power, that's huge.

Like clockwork, white voter registration has decreased by a single, nearly unnoticeable percentage point each year during the past decade. At the same time, black voter registration has been increasing each year by another, single percentage point. The result?

If the trend continues, in a little over a decade, the city could be close to evenly divided between white and minority voters. And it appears it will be. Charlotte is now the number three destination city for African-Americans in the country. In the fast-approaching future, Charlotte will have a string of black mayors and a city council even more diverse than it has now. Today Charlotte's black voters sit at the table of power, but a time is coming when the black community will have the votes to have something approaching veto power on issues they choose to organize behind.

So far, few people here are talking about it, at least not officially. But three years ago, the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Community Building Initiative began showing a slide presentation to the VIPs around town as part of what they call their "Crossroads Charlotte" initiative. The presentation was a load of vague, feel-good stuff about race relations and economic sustainability wrapped around a single graphic that no doubt caused heart palpitations among the old Charlotte types.

That graphic showed the "non-white" population of Mecklenburg County shooting up from 20 percent in 1990 to a projected 45 percent in 2010.

If you've wondered what drives the sudden obsession of the Uptown types with everyone-sits-at-the-table racial healing initiatives in recent years, you have your answer. They knew this was coming.

But things are more complicated than that. Charlotte's African-American leadership is fundamentally divided over how to seize the new power their voting block gives them. The two sides have spent so much time undermining each other that the black community has so far been denied the kind of unified leadership it would take to really influence things here.

On one side you have those who sat out the Mackey fiasco and were embarrassed by it. They represent a younger, affluent, post-civil rights era mindset. They play the game from the inside, like former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt did. They gave only the most tepid of public support -- and little behind the scenes -- to African-American mayoral candidate Beverly Earle a few months ago because Earle wasn't one of them and they have their own designs on the mayor's office.

Then you have your old school civil-righters who are more of the Al Sharpton mentality. They have no patience with those who would pander to the power structure and assume power gradually. They'd rather take it by force and intimidation, and Mackey is the battering ram they are using at the moment. This is why Mackey's record is immaterial to them. He is merely a political tool they are using to assume power and solidify it before the other crowd manages to gain too much influence. This Mackey episode is really more of a quest to solidify black voter support behind the black leaders backing Mackey than it is a civil rights struggle.

In the process, the whole county has been caught up the power play. Even if the sheriff situation is resolved and Mackey is never heard from again, the power struggle won't end, because this is merely the first round.

The whole thing is making the establishment squirm as they attempt to delay the inevitable. These are people who talk about seats at the table, but don't give them up easily. All of which makes for great political theater. I've got my feet up, popcorn in hand.

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