It’s helpful when viewing the current violence in Charlotte, North Carolina to examine the history of slavery of the region, because, although slavery has ended, discrimination and the white power and economic structure persist. Like most Southern cities, Charlotte had slaves, and prior to the civil war, a scattered amount of freed men, who were viewed with suspicion. Following the civil war, there was a period of relative peace and prosperity as the Republican party, at least in North Carolina, was comprised of many blacks who voted and were represented in government, but racial tensions were inflamed in the late 1800s and Democrats, once elected, enacted severe segregation laws which weren’t struck down until the 1960s. There is a great discussion on the history of racial politics of Charlotte here, if you have the time to read it, but the bottom line was that for many decades, wealthy white southerners held political power in Charlotte and blacks were disenfranchised and discriminated against. Racial imbalance continues to this day in the region. As of 2013, 35% of the Charlotte population identified as African American, and 42% as white – but the police force, like in many American cities, is overwhelmingly white. Further, the unemployment rate for African Americans in North Carolina is almost double that of white people. So when a black motorist, Keith Scott, was shot dead by police officers on Tuesday against the backdrop of nationwide racial animus and police brutality, it was not surprising that violence erupted.
Many white people contradict the idea of ‘white privilege’ by stating that slavery ended over 150 years ago and that legal discrimination has ended. They will suggest that black people have an even playing field now. And in some ways, they are correct. But they ignore the idea of inherited wealth. Many white institutions and families were built and earned their high economic position on the backs of slaves and slavery. Georgetown University, one of many examples, is handling a crisis of it’s own with regards to it’s checkered past purchasing slaves prior to the Civil War. Even after the Civil Rights era, blacks and whites were and are still housed to a great extent in segregated neighborhoods, sometimes by choice, but often by design, even in the North. It is an open and ironic secret that Milwaukee, Wisconsin is the most segregated city in the United States. These housing practices leave many poor blacks in isolated ghettos devoid of properly funded school systems and poisoned by lead-spewing factories, leading to a cycle of illiteracy, incarceration and neglect.
If we were to divest wealthy whites and their institutions from the foundation of wealth created by discrimination, torture and imprisonment, we would no doubt find billions if not trillions of dollars unleashed into the economy. Blacks would live in safe neighborhoods with well-funded schools and police departments would have a sufficient balance of diversity. But today that is not the case, and some poor African American males are forced to earn a living in the underground drug economy which in many cases requires gang membership and gun ownership as a matter of safety and survival.
Back in Charlotte, there is some question as to whether Keith Scott was armed at the time he was shot. The police department’s refusal to release the dash cam video immediately after the shooting will no doubt lead some conspiracy theorists to assume it was doctored or edited once it does become public. His family stated that he was not armed, and that he was carrying a book of some kind, but even if he should not legally have been holding a weapon, can one blame him if he was? All around the United States, unarmed blacks have been shot and beaten by a mostly white police force, often with lethal consequences. In many cities, the police are viewed as a another well armed gang, albeit funded by the white power structure. Is it completely unreasonable to understand why some black men would refuse to drop a weapon when they believe that no matter what they do, they will be shot by the police?
It may in fact be determined that the officer had a legal basis to shoot him even though he did not appear to demonstrate a clear and present danger. But with it’s history of segregation, an uneven job market and a racially unequal police force, many will chose to riot and loot to vent their anger. Some will view this as unjustified criminal activity or riot, and others, as a slow revolution to share in some of the fruits of their ancestors’ free labor. Either way, many on both sides of the debate will agree that peaceful protest devoid of violence and destruction is the best course of action not just for the nation, but for the community. Meanwhile, the unrest will continue to be viewed in the context of a Civil War that never quite ended, as a pot boiling over, and the flames beneath growing higher to engulf these ‘United’ States.