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What Would MLK Do? 

The dream and the reality

Martin Luther King Jr. once had a dream of racial equality. But never in his wildest dreams could he have foreseen the bizarre fashion in which that dream would play itself out in modern-day Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Back in King's day, the goals of equality were clearcut and it was a lot easier to tell who was a racist and who wasn't. Not so anymore. For local politicians in the modern era, proving one isn't racist can mean paying millions of dollars to lawyers or consultants to prove that the board or council you serve on is racist. Depending on which expenses you count, over the last five years, local politicians have spent between $10 million and $20 million to prove that the city, county and the school system, and those who oversee them, need legal supervision to decide which schools children should attend or whether minority construction companies get contracts. Like other municipalities around the country, our pols have done this to buy legal protection for minority preference programs in an era when the courts are striking down these kinds of programs. But to keep the programs in place, you have to prove that you still discriminate. Just another example of the surreal, upside-down world of current politics.

Before those of you who support such programs cheer them on for their selflessness, you've got to understand how this system really works. The contracts in question won't go to just any minority contractor. In local politics, there are politically connected African-Americans and just plain African-Americans. For the most part, the second group shouldn't waste their time bidding on jobs. This isn't about them.

It's about companies that hire or are run by the right African-Americans, or those who are capable of turning out the black vote, or who are connected to those capable of turning out the black vote. The direct benefit goes to Democrats because they need African-American voters to win. It benefits most Republicans indirectly since it buys them some political protection from racial controversy, while at the same time putting fellow politicians in debt to them for their complicity in going along with the approval of contracts for the "right" folks.

Meanwhile, most members of the school board, who depend largely on the votes of minorities to keep them elected, spend much of their energy obsessing over the fact that school choice is leading to re-segregation of the schools, never mind that this self-segregation is largely created by parents who can now choose which schools their kids attend. What the parents of these children want is irrelevant and always has been. The majority of the school board bows to African-American leaders who grew up in the civil-rights era and see this as a return to the old days of legally enforced segregation.

Sure, the school system launches plenty of great "programs" for minority kids every year, but actually educating them still comes second to putting the right percentage of faces in the right schools so as to get oneself re-elected.

White conservatives, meanwhile, are now attempting to undermine the very system they fought for, or at least appeared to fight for. County Commissioner Bill James and school board member Larry Gauvreau knew darn well that school choice would require an obscene amount of busing -- former school superintendent Eric Smith told them so, in detail. Now they feign shocked outrage over the cost of busing these kids to the schools they said they wanted parents to be able to choose -- money that, let's face it, could be spent on more trailers outside the most popular suburban schools so more white kids can be crammed in and their constituents will be happy.

If all of that weren't enough, the same politicians who fell on their swords and paid to be legally branded as racists can't manage to get a well-known African-American county commissioner elected at-large in majority-white liberal precincts.

Perhaps the best measure of exactly where Charlotte-Mecklenburg is on race relations is the way the politically unconnected folks of Optimist Park have been treated over the last two years. The city talks a good game about empowering low-income neighborhoods, but it refused their request for a matching grant for patrols by private security guards when they begged city leaders for help because they were scared to go outside at night.

At the time, African-American city council member Patrick Cannon questioned whether the "financial resources were available" and what "precedent this would set." Nobody cared what precedent it would set when city leaders hired security guards to work the Government Center in the wake of Sept. 11.

Now the folks of Optimist Park want the city to stop an asphalt plant from being built in their neighborhood. Given the $7 million in contracts the city has with Ferebee Corp., the company that plans to build it, I have no doubt the city could stop that plant if it chose to lift a finger. In fact, if that plant were to go up in Myers Park, Dilworth or Elizabeth, that finger would become a fist.

If only King could see us now.

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