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Charlotte needs to acknowledge African-American migration

The black people are coming!

Suddenly, after 15 years, it's finally front page news that thousands of African-Americans have moved back to the South and back to Charlotte, as headlines in the Charlotte Observer screamed last week.

It's also old news. Creative Loafing and Charlotte's African-American publications have been writing about this trend for almost two years -- and wondering how long it would take for the Charlotte Observer and the powers that be to finally get around to publicly acknowledging it in a significant way. Last week, the paper finally did -- sort of.

Until then, it was one of the city's better kept secrets. About two years ago, the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Community Building Initiative quietly began giving dozens of slide presentations to the VIPs around town as part of what they call their "Crossroads Charlotte" initiative. The presentation was basically a load of vague, feel-good stuff about race relations and economic progress wrapped around a single graphic that no doubt caused heart palpitations among "destination Charlotte" types.

That graphic showed the "non-white" population of Mecklenburg County more than doubling from 20 percent in 1990 to a projected 45 percent in 2010. If the trend continues, by 2025, it's entirely possible that the county's population will be split 60/40, with minorities making up the majority of the population here.

The Observer's story, which was similar to one I wrote a year ago, talked about the return of African-Americans to the South in large numbers -- a sort of reverse of the Great Migration of the 1960s, when blacks moved to the North in large numbers -- and how the African-American population here is growing, too. That's true, but the rest of the story is even more dramatic: Charlotte, in the space of about a decade, became the number three destination for African-Americans in the nation. This is far more than a Southern migration; it's a Charlotte migration.

By 2000, Charlotte had attracted more new African-Americans than all but two other US cities, Atlanta and Dallas, according to a 2004 study by Brookings Institute scholar William Frey. And while the Observer story accurately painted a picture of a large and growing African-American middle class here, it left the impression that the migration was largely a middle-class one. The tidy town crowd may wish that were the case, but it isn't.

There's no way to tell exactly how many of the more than 110,000 African-Americans who have made Charlotte their home since 1990 were impoverished or fleeing poverty. But since the new migration is fairly representative of the African-American community as a whole, in raw numbers there are going to be more low-income movers because there are more low-income people, said Frey.

"Like in Atlanta, it's a broad-based migration," Frey said. "It's not just any particular niche that moves. It's young, old, rich, poor, high-education, low-education."

Social services agencies like the Urban League and Crisis Assistance Ministry are seeing the results in their lobbies. Word has spread that there is a lot of opportunity in Charlotte, and a decade ago, that certainly was the case. Today, a lot of those blue-collar jobs are gone, and people who move here with nothing find heartbreaking struggle instead, leaders of both organizations told CL. As Hispanic immigrants also pour in, the competition for the low-skilled jobs that are left is escalating.

Charles Gallagher, a professor with the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at Georgia State, thinks the trends here will mimic the long-term trends in Atlanta.

"Atlanta was a huge engine for job growth," said Gallagher. "The northern arc of the city experienced an explosion as did finance, insurance and real estate downtown, but there were no net jobs created in poor black neighborhoods. If it's like it was in Atlanta, you're going to have a large population of blue-collar black workers coming in, and they'll need the kind of jobs that might not necessarily be there anymore."

And while it's great news that the county's outer-ring suburbs are more diverse than they have ever been before, thanks to the middle class part of the migration, a study of 2000 census data by Creative Loafing last March found that the opposite is happening in formerly diverse middle-ring neighborhoods. Between 1990 and 2000, a net 26,000 white residents vanished from middle-ring census tracts between uptown and the far-flung suburbs and were replaced by African-American and Hispanic newcomers in a classic white-flight pattern.

Going forward, the new African-American and Hispanic migrations could have a greater impact on the social and economic fabric of our formerly vanilla community than any other in the Southeast.

That could make Charlotte a seriously cool place to be. It could also tear this community apart at the seams. What happens next depends heavily on whether the uptown vision-heads can finally bring themselves to admit that this isn't 1995, and that what worked then won't work now.

If the racially charged political havoc the new migration is already wreaking in our school system is any example, we are ill-prepared to deal with this cleverly -- or at all -- as a community.

That has to change. We could start by finally acknowledging all the realities of a migration that has quietly been picking up steam here for 15 years.

Got a story idea? E-mail Tara at tara.servatius@creativeloafing.com.

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