Queen City leaders have spent years molding Charlotte into a destination city. Ask the average Charlottean a decade ago who the Queen City was a destination for, and more times than not, they'd have told you "bankers."
At one point, the leadership attempted to turn it into a destination city for tourism. But all the while, as the cranes lifted yet another story onto the condo towers that were supposed to house the Ivy League's newest crop of shiny-shoed bankers, Charlotte was becoming a destination for others who barely attracted notice. They still don't.
Buried within the Brookings Institute's State of Metropolitan America study last week was a destination description I've never heard anyone around here affix to Charlotte: Hispanic destination city.
Brookings studied U.S. Census Bureau numbers from 2000 through 2008. If trends continued, the 2010 census data, when complete, will confirm a Charlotte more diverse than anyone could have fathomed in the 1990s.
The city has become so diverse that non-Hispanic whites have now officially obtained minority status in Charlotte, making up just 49.1 percent of the population, a trend that was unthinkable as late as 2000.
What is going on here? Brookings described Charlotte as one of the top Hispanic destination cities in the nation with the second fastest growing Hispanic and Asian population in the country, according to the report. (Brookings combined the two groups in its stats. Given that the Asian population is still tiny here, it's almost entirely the Hispanic population that is driving this trend.)
In that time period, the Charlotte area's Hispanic population more than doubled, jumping by more than 40,000 to 80,200. The new Brookings report also lists Charlotte as a destination city for African-Americans, a trend Brookings first noted earlier in the decade as part of what it called the "New Great Migration" of black Americans back to the South. A staggering 94,171 African-Americans moved here in just eight years, making the Charlotte area the sixth hottest relocation spot in the nation for them, after Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami and the Washington, D.C., area.
Suddenly, things that have been happening around here lately, like Barack Obama's domination of Charlotte in the last election and the recent election of African-American Mayor Anthony Foxx, are beginning to make a lot more sense.
But it's even more complicated than that, because the Charlotte area is also a top destination city, according to Brookings, for whites, ranking sixth in the nation in white influx, with an additional 157,566 moving here.
What's changing the face of the Charlotte so dramatically is that African-Americans and Hispanics are relocating to the city of Charlotte and its suburbs. Whites who locate here choose the suburbs in the towns outside the city of Charlotte and have also moved in large numbers to the counties around Mecklenburg.
This is why Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had a 58 percent white population in 1998, but is 33 percent white now. The number of white students hasn't declined in our schools. It just hasn't grown in a decade that saw a boom in Hispanic and African-American children. While the white population at CMS stagnated, school districts in the surrounding counties added tens of thousands of white children.
It's a pattern that looks like white flight -- and may eventually turn into that -- but for now is more akin to racial "self-segregation."
After the banking collapse, I'd say it's the second biggest story of the decade. The highly white, affluent, wing-tipped Charlotte of 1998 is barely recognizable now. Yet the trend has received shockingly little notice.
We are, The Charlotte Observer reports, "younger, bigger and poorer." But that is only part of the story. As I've pointed out in the past, 20 years ago, the big political decisions were make by white bankers and powerful developers who got together at the City Club. When I started reporting here in the mid-1990s, members of the banking upper echelon were still Charlotte's king-makers, setting the agenda for Uptown development and backing candidates with dollars that made city races decidedly lopsided.
Now the bankers have disengaged, and to some extent are even pulling up stake. Because the city now has more Democratic voters than any other kind, and because 70 percent of registered Dems are black, it is black voters and their leadership who will have the biggest say in major leadership decisions.
Another trend would have a huge impact going forward. If Congress votes to give citizenship/voting rights to illegal immigrants, it will alter Charlotte's electoral landscape again. Right now, Hispanics make up just 2 percent of registered voters, but nearly 12 percent of the population here. If they were all able to vote, Charlotte's voter demographics would look a lot more like its political demographics, with non-Hispanic whites in the minority there, too.
All of which makes Charlotte a destination city when it comes to diversity.