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More Diverse Than You Think

County's changing racial demographics

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In 2000, the Charlotte community ranked 39th out of 40 US communities in a Harvard survey that measured levels of trust between the races. Today, different racial and ethnic groups are increasingly rubbing elbows, and not just in our schools, but in a majority of the census tracts in the county. In 1980, the bulk of the African-American population was clustered in the north and western areas of the county around the center city, while much of the south and eastern sections of the city and county were less then five percent African-American.

By 2000, that was rapidly changing as a growing black middle class staked their claim to a place in the suburbs. Today, virtually all of the county's eastern census tracts from uptown to the county line are a minimum 25 percent African-American. Along I-77, which runs through the heart of both the county's northern and southern suburbs, nearly every census tract now has an African-American population of at least 10 percent. The bulk of the Hispanic population, meanwhile, has flocked to suburbs between uptown and the eastern county border and along parts of the South Boulevard corridor.

That means, of course, that schools in the county's middle suburban ring, which not so long ago was a haven for middle class whites, is now getting an infusion of diversity.

Because local news coverage tends to focus on the plight of schools at the racial extremes, in particular those that are 80 and 90 percent minority or low-income, most people probably have a skewed view of what our schools look like demographically.

In reality, many of our schools, particularly those in the county's middle ring, grow more racially diverse with each passing year. This year, less than 30 percent of our middle schools had white student populations over 50 percent and only three out of 30 had white enrollment of over 75 percent.

And while about half had African-American populations over 50 percent, only five had black student populations over 75 percent.

It's in these schools that the complex dynamics of tipping are taking place at varying rates of speed.

This year, 72 percent of CMS middle schools had a lower percentage of white children than the year before, while only two made percentage gains in white population. At the same time, the percentage of African-American children increased at half of our elementary schools.

The new bottom line, it seems, is that our schools aren't more or less diverse solely because of the student assignment plan. The rapid rate of demographic change in the suburbs, a factor that often gets left out of the student assignment debate, is clearly playing a role as well.

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