We spent 2017 at Creative Loafing focused on Charlotte — its strengths as well as its weaknesses — and not concerning ourselves or you with what those outside of the city think of us. It's good to know Anthony Foxx, our former mayor and the former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, is of the same mind.
On the first day of 2018, I watched a video of a talk Foxx gave last month at the Community Building Initiative's 20th annual stakeholders breakfast. CBI, for those not aware, is the nonprofit organization established in 1997 to work towards racial and ethnic inclusion in Charlotte.
- Foxx gets real
Foxx did not mince words on what he believes the city needs to do in order to overcome the problems which came to a head with the September 2016 uprising that changed conversations in this city throughout last year.
"Charlotte needs to stop worrying about what the world thinks of it," Foxx said. "We need to focus more on what we think of ourselves."
The former mayor was alluding to our longtime collective desire to be seen as a so-called world class city — like Atlanta or New York or name-your-larger-city-of-choice.
When I first moved back home to North Carolina from New York in 2002, I remember thinking how odd it was that Charlotteans were so insistent on letting me know how perfect the city is: We have art! We have culture! We have great restaurants! We have so many things to do! The comments reminded me of that oft-quoted line from Hamlet — "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."
At the time, I found it amusingly quaint. It's no longer amusing or quaint. It's time to stop it.
Foxx agrees. "And I say this because when a community's reputation is so fragile, it almost by definition makes protest the most effective way to gain action," he told the CBI gathering. "If you're so worried about what the rest of the world thinks about you, you're asking for protest instead of engaged dialogue."
He pointed to a recent Harvard study showing Charlotte's ranking at the bottom in economic mobility. "Why did it take Harvard University to tell us that we have an income mobility challenge? Where has our conscience been? And why did those who [have been] telling us to focus on this issue for years and years and years — why were they not heard?"
The ugly truth is that, for many, Charlotte is not the postcard-perfect city we've tried to show the world it is. And it's OK to say so. Foxx recounted earlier eras, when Charlotte was at the vanguard of desegregation and not insecure about showing its warts. He name-checked powerful people who made sacrifices to make the city more inclusive — attorney Julius Chambers, who argued the U.S. Supreme Court case for school busing, and C.D. Spangler, the wealthy school board chair who sent his kids to West Charlotte High School to show that, as Foxx said, "if one of the richest people in all America could send his daughters to a formerly all-black high school, then other people could, too."
Foxx offered a personal anecdote about a frightening police encounter he had as a teenager in the 1980s — a story familiar to any African American growing up here or elsewhere. If we are not willing to hold a mirror to ourselves, he said, then we invite resistance.
"I know what people feel about the criminal justice system and its unfairness specifically to African Americans," he said. "I understood it as mayor. And I understood it when I watched our city on fire in September 2016."
But Foxx didn't just criticize our collective denial. He also offered solutions, shining a light on several people who are working hard for change right now, and enumerating some of the policies he himself initiated as a city councilman and mayor — such as his work on improving access for residents of the Beatties Ford Road corridor, despite hypocrisy from those who shunned it while supporting a bridge over I-485 in tony Ballantyne.
As our recent city elections showed, Charlotte must begin acknowledging that we are not a community for affluent older white males only. "We're Asian, we're Latino, we're men and women, we're straight, we're gay, we're lesbian, we're transgender, we're queer, we're rich, we're middle class, we're poor, we're urban and suburban and rural," Fox told the CBI gathering. "We're all of these things."
The former mayor also talked about a trip he made to Africa. He had visited a site there where slaves were once put on ships bound for the Americas. "It's easy to say that these things don't matter anymore or that this history is disconnected from where we are today," he said. "And then I look at Ferguson and Staten Island and Baltimore and even here in Charlotte and in Charlottesville — history is still with us.
"But we're not confined to it," Foxx added. "We can rise above it. But it is only by looking at it in the mirror and understanding how we've gotten to where we are and how much farther we have to go."