Davidsonian Exclusive Interview: Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts

Mayor Roberts in 2015, Photo courtesy of John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer

On Wednesday, November 7th, senior staff writer Ethan Ehrenhaft interviewed Charlotte Mayor, Jennifer Roberts:

EE: Charlotte has undergone incredible financial development in the last few decades, and as of this year, the city is the country’s third largest banking center. I was wondering how you personally witnessed change and growth in Charlotte throughout your lifetime?

JR: Oh wow, well you know I grew up here, and I remember when Pineville was just farmland. I remember how when I went to college and I’d come home and see my parents how every time I came home there was a new road – Harris Boulevard didn’t exist when I was growing up, so there were whole major changes in the infrastructure, the buildings that are here, there was a different Civic Center, so you know physically it is dramatic the way the city has grown and changed…

And you know when I was growing up it was a city of about 200,000 people, so Greensboro kind of size, and now we’re over 850,000 and the county is over a million. So certainly the density of development you can see it. Having a kid in school, you can see it in the overcrowding of schools unfortunately. So there are lots of ways you can see it. It’s also interesting to see the diversification of the city. When I think about public places, how I often hear Spanish being spoken, even in South Park and Ballantyne. A lot of places in the city you see a lot more nationalities than when I was growing up. So that is visual signs of the ways the city is growing. There’s also a lot more young people. When I was growing up, you couldn’t wait to get out of Charlotte because there was nothing to do if you were young and single.

EE: You talked about immigration especially. I think Charlotte’s Latino population has nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, and so what are some more ways that the increase in immigrants has shaped the growth of the city?

JR: Well they certainly have added in a number of professional areas. Clearly food service – I think Johnson and Wales also did that – and you know, again, there were so few restaurant choices, and when I was growing up you didn’t really go out much, you eat at home, and with Johnson and Wales moving here you get great chefs and all the diverse communities opening up restaurants we now have a great variety, which is part of what makes us a very livable city, and part of what makes us a millennial magnet is that we have the diversity of dining opportunities, and it also makes us great for conventions because people do want to have those kinds of entertainment options. So the foreign population is part of that. Also, if you look at our professional community, if you look at the medical community, if you look at the IT community, quite a few international folks – banking – a lot of the global companies that we have here very international folks – we have a number of German companies – two hundred German companies and over 1,000 foreign owned firms. So you do have folks here from Germany.

There’s a whole group of folks from Africa and the Caribbean. They just started a political action committee called ACPAC, African Caribbean Political Action Committee, and their whole thing is to get folks from those countries aware of civic issues and engaged and to have a voice in these issues and I’ve been to a mass and everybody in the room, it’d be a hundred people in different African costumes and they were all from Africa, and you know doing different things here, teaching, engineering, communications, advanced manufacturing, just a lot of things that our international community gets involved in. We’ve also been a center for refugee resettlement. And so, we have quite a few Vietnamese and Laotian residents who came here after the Vietnam War, and they had served on the side of the U.S. during that war and were given refuge here, and so we have a number of Asian families that come from that time, which again, makes the population very interesting and adds to the skills that are available in the workforce.

EE: In 2013 the Equality of Opportunity Project released findings that Charlotte was ranked 50th out of the 50 largest US cities in terms of economic upwards mobility. How did you respond to that statistic when it was released, and what do you think are the root causes of it in Charlotte were?

JR: I was not surprised, and if you dig a little deeper in that study and you look at where the cities are and how they’re ranked, it’s how you move out of the bottom quintile to the top quintile, so if you move out the bottom 20% to the top, how likely is that to happen, well Charlotte is 4.4%. The highest ones are 12%, that’s out in California. But if you look at Atlanta was 49, Raleigh was 48, if you look at the cities in the bottom 40’s they’re all in the Southeast. So there are a lot of roots to that. I was not surprised, because I was a county commissioner before I was a mayor, and I have seen the disparities from everything to educational access to healthcare to jobs. I know we have discrimination, we built our city on discrimination, on separation, with redlining of property, you know taking land from successful African Americans and moving them, the whole urban redevelopment, but before that the legacy of slavery, the Jim Crow legacy, the busing that helped integrate our schools and then the lawsuit that has helped re-segregate our schools. So I was not surprised that we were low on that score, and it is very hard if you’re born in a poor family in Charlotte to change that narrative. Unless you catch a break, with a scholarship, with a family that focuses on education, and with a lot of luck and perseverance. So, again, I’ve been talking about the two Charlotte’s and the two Mecklenburgs for years and I’ve seen things for years. When I ran for office in 2015, I talked about the two Charlottes, and on the county commission I talked about disparity, and I would say that the recession from 2008-2009 exacerbated things. So, while it was hard before it became even harder. I also look at Charlotte even compared to Atlanta, I mean Atlanta is only one notch up from us on the opportunity scale. I didn’t see in Charlotte the number of successful black business people at the CEO level or the C-suite level, I have not seen it to the level it should be here in Charlotte given how prosperous we are, given how many businesses are moving here. There is a growing upper middle class of minority residents and if you go to any of Herb Gray events there are rooms of you know people who are doing quite well, you know but they’re not doing like top-well, like CEO-well, so you know people like Jean Woods are exceptions. We’re making progress, though.

EE: What do you think are some Charlotte specific factors to the trends that you see?

JR: Well I think it’s general to the Southeast – I think it is a lack of generational wealth. It is the fact that we forced black people to live in lower-income areas – in not as nice areas, and we separated them in education, in schools, and kept their education achievements lower than whites, and that’s been happening for decades, and we are seeing the legacies of that. Not to mention the disparities in the criminal justice system, the disparities in health care – and what’s interesting about the disparities in health care is that it’s not just that people of color get treated differently by the medical community, so they’re much less likely to get a follow up or chronic illness or heart disease are things that the doctor is just less likely to take the same level of care and follow-up for than for white people. It’s not just that. It’s also that living with discrimination leads to a level of stress and anxiety that also impacts health. And so, things like depression, things like frequent illnesses, colds and chronic illness, and lack of education, things like that just kind of spiral.

Our poorest communities have food deserts, where you can’t find a fresh carrot or anything to buy within three miles, because that’s the way our private markets work – they go to where the money is and they don’t necessarily fill in where they’re needed in lower income communities. So, it’s a number of factors that work together, of course, if you look at the Opportunity task force report, a number of things they focus on are early childhood education, college and career readiness, and then family structure and social capital. And again, in a lot of poorer communities, they are challenged by family structure, which again leads to that cycle where you have a hard time rising out of poverty. So, there are structural things that really make it hard to close that achievement gap. And, I really think about, if you look at the map and think about what differentiates these twelve southeastern states from the rest of the country, it’s the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. And look, we’re the fastest growing place in the country, we’ve got a great climate, we’ve got great transportation, we’ve got a great airport. All the things line up. What doesn’t match other parts of the country is the level of discrimination and separation and the legacy of that. And there is policy that relates to that as well, if you look at conservative states, we didn’t expand Medicaid, we cut unemployment benefits, it’s hard to find people to lend to your small business if your personal income….just you know every way you can turn we’ve made it hard.

EE: You also mention that disparity in the schooling system. Could talk about some of the ways that the Charlotte public school system has essentially been re-segregated over the years?

JR: It all happened in 1999. I grew up here during desegregation, so even though Brown v. Board was in place before, it wasn’t until Swann that schools were actually forced to desegregate. So then I was in school here and then late 60’s early 70’s I remember the white parents protesting, keeping their kids home and all that, but one thing the schools and the community accepted it actually better than other places in the country, like Boston.

I went to East Meck and had a terrific education, we had a black principal, it was a very fulfilling education, of course now we have a majority-minority school district so we actually have more people of color in our schools than whites. But, we still have schools segregated.

So when I was in school it was pretty much across the board they tried to get all schools in the community to 25% minority. Some white parents sued the school system in the early 90’s and so Judge Potter came down with the decision on this lawsuit, because some white parents had been excluded from certain schools because of racial consideration blah blah blah.

That being said, we now have a unitary school district: you may not use race in your assignment. And starting in 2000, 2001 when they did the school reassignment plan, the whole goal was neighborhood schools. And when you have segregated neighborhoods, that means you get segregated schools. So you have a school like Audrey Kell or Providence High which are 98% white, and you get a school like West Charlotte or West Mecklenburg, and they are 98% black. And that’s true of the middle schools and the elementary schools as well.

And we know from UNC-Charlotte studies and from other researchers that hurts not just the minority students, but it also hurts the white students because they don’t get a sense of what it’s like to live in a diverse world which is what we live in, they don’t get preparation for that. And so it decreases the quality of education. We know from Jim Crow that separate is not equal, and we also know that when you have a classroom where you have 25 kids and maybe 2 of those kids come to kindergarten not having read, not having books at home, you can make up for that. When you have a classroom of 25 and 23 of those kids had no books at home, came from poverty, and are trying to learn the alphabet, it is a much bigger challenge. And I was room parent in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom, and she went to a magnet school that was pretty good in terms of integration – it was about 40% minority- and you know, there were three or four kids in her kindergarten class who had never seen the letter “A” and you know didn’t know their letters at all, when they entered at 5 years old, had never really looked at a book. You just got parents to come in and tutor them and then eventually at the end of the year you can bring those five kids forward. But that’s different from having 25 kids who are in that boat. It’s just a very very hard thing that came up. So, that is, that resegregation, where we are concentrating poverty…

And by the way, we also did stupid things in our housing policy back in the 60s and 70s, and it concentrated poverty in housing projects, and so kids would grow up seeing all kinds of people who never went to work or had part time jobs or didn’t get decent jobs or didn’t work. They grew up seeing that, they didn’t grow up next to doctors or lawyers, they didn’t know what it was like to have a career. And that again leads to the perpetuation of poverty because it’s seen as like a normal thing for them to not have a full time job. And that’s very harmful. Research has shown that mixed-income communities, as well as mixed-income schools and mixed-income health, all works better for everybody.

EE: During your tenure as mayor, what were some ways you tried to combat that racial inequality in the city, especially in regards to those entrenched housing projects, an acute lack of affordable housing, etc.?

JR: In housing, we have certainly worked very hard, the council passed its locational policy, which tries to avoid concentration of low-income housing, so they tried to do it, you can’t have a certain number of units within a mile in certain parts of the city. The challenge is that people in Ballantyne and South Park and University area are not going to accept those housing complexes. They’re going to protest too much and talk to their city councilors about not approving it, and so we have had to make exceptions to that locational policies. It’s still a goal, and we have tried to spread that housing out, so it’s not just in one district, now it’s in four districts, but there are two districts in the south and southeast that hardly ever get anything affordable and that continues to be the case. But we have tried. We have tried to spread it out on city council.

We also have talked quite a bit about putting more money into the housing trust fund. And what I’ve done is really focus quite a bit on youth, because one way we know you focus on….. Is you work with young people, because they’re the next generation. And the opportunity task force report focused on that: early childhood education, college readiness, and social capital. So what I have done is a couple things that I do with youth. I have a mayor’s youth employment program that gets kids 8 week internships in the summer in real career jobs, lawyers, engineering, banks – both Wells Fargo and Bank of America take interns, these kids get placed in real jobs that they can learn about and get the idea of maybe what it would take to work in that field after they graduate. So I’ve expanded that from 300 to 450 young people, and I’ve got two people we’ve hired to try to expand that to 800 or even 1,000 young people. And that’s changing lives, because a lot of those young people have to work, to supplement the family’s income. So, there’s a program we’ve expanded, gotten more corporate partners.

I’ve also started a new after school program called Charlotte Next. I’ve found a non-profit MeckEd to run it, because we don’t have the capacity for the city to run it. And they are running that to try to reach, starting with six middle schools that do not currently have after school programs, to try to connect them with after school programs and try to ensure that there are low cost of no cost programs so that those students can have that supplemental learning whether it’s tutoring, the arts, athletics, whatever it is that so many rich kids get which again contributes to their ability to succeed and rise out of poverty. So again, the average seventh grader if by the time they end seventh grade has not had violin lessons or ballet lessons or any of that stuff, they are missing about 6,000 hours in instruction, versus their counterparts who have had violin lessons and all of that. And we know that that creates academic success as well as social and interpersonal success.

EE: Like you said, Charlotte is a young city right now so this is the time to lay down the future foundation for that generation.

JR: Absolutely. One last thing we did in terms of closing the opportunity gap, we worked on employment again for adults. Trying to again, Charlotte getting rid of the box on the application where you don’t have to check if you’ve had an arrest or not, because we know that first, people of color are disproportionately arrested for the same crimes, and second, you want to give people a chance to explain it. Because you can’t keep punishing someone forever for a stupid thing they did when they were seventeen. So that’s another thing Charlotte has done.

EE: I was also wondering about what role gentrification has played in Charlotte in recent years, both negative and positive.

JR: Well it wasn’t a problem until the recession was over. I mean, there was some gentrification going on before the recession was over, but property values were not skyrocketing like they are now, and what we see is that there are people in older homes who get phone calls and postcards from people who want to buy it who offer them twice what they bought it for and they think, oh well this is a great deal, and they sell it and earn some money. But, the person who bought it turns it around and flips it for twice as much again. And we know that people who are not financially savvy are being taken advantage of. So that’s one challenge with gentrification.

Of course the other challenge is when we do have property revaluation, which is every 8 years and another one in 2019, if they are in a gentrifying area or someone builds a 40,000 sq. ft. house right next to theirs, even though they’re 1,800 square feet they’re going to see their property taxes go up too. And that makes it less affordable for them and tends to push them out. And they’re having a hard time finding anything in the city of Charlotte that they can afford. So we are trying to counter that with more affordable housing developments and also some grants for what we call repair improvements. So if you’re in a house that you would like to stay in even though things are growing around you, and you have some repairwork you’d like to have done, and you can’t afford the repairwork, we have some grants so they can actually do that repairwork and stay in those homes, because gentrification forces a lot of people out of homes they’ve been in for years.

EE: Yeah, I’m from Washington D.C. and you see that there all the time, too, these communities where they’ve been where they are and where they’ve been for generations, and then because of the soaring real estate prices just being forced out, which is sad. And this is a follow up to that. With those issues of intergenerational poverty that you’ve been talking about, how does that contribute to protesters’ anger following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott?

JR: Well clearly, if you’re taking hope away from people, and they look around and everyone they know is poor, and everyone they know can’t afford increased housing prices, you’re going to see a lot of anger, especially if everyone around you has dark skin, and you see all these white people being very successful. And you see the growth and the cranes downtown and you know it’s not reaching your community. Absolutely, that contributed. I think the lack of communication also contributed. We’ve had some shootings since Keith Lamont Scott and we’ve been much more proactive in reaching out to the community and saying, “here are all the facts we know, we’ll be in touch” you know police talk to communities about keeping things peaceful. We’re doing that much better now than we were in 2016, last September. We have learned quite a bit, and we are really pleased with where the police have come with it.

EE: So you see the police and the community heading towards a more positive relationship, a year afterwards?

JR: Absolutely.

EE: What do you think your proudest accomplishment as mayor of Charlotte has been?

JR: Wow. There are a number of things. The thing I can take credit for that I can take credit for- because a lot of the things we’re working on – housing, jobs, transportation, those are all joint group projects. There’s a whole group of people involved in those, working together on those, even the transparency of the police – even though I’m very proud that they listened to what I said about the video release and wanting to make sure we’re open and transparent… but probably the thing I had the most personal influence on was the after school program because I raised $1.2 million and you know again we’re going to be reaching 6 middle schools and about 1,000 kids total who will have access to things they wouldn’t have had access to before. And that generational poverty starts with young people. And if we can give them a leg up and a head-start, it’s going to be a huge difference in the future.

EE: What do you think the next steps the city needs to take to ease upwards economic mobility for families are?

JR: For families? You know… I think continued work on the training we’re doing for implicit bias and distilling racism, so you know employers will see that they have an implicit bias they’re not even aware of. They’ll see, you know, if your job application has an immigrant sounding name or an African American name you’re much less likely to get a call back, than if your name is John Smith. And again, we’re trying to work with companies to recognize that and to take steps to maybe take names off applications and stuff like that. Just trying to be a leader and an example on those kinds of things. Because we can’t force private companies on that.

EE: I’m in a class right now that’s studying implicit bias, and it’s one of those things that’s a historical legacy that’s still so in play in Southern cities.

JR: It’s incredible. And if you can’t recognize it you can’t work to counter it. And one of the biggest things is just recognizing what you have within you. And there’s a big article that a woman wrote to ……. She’d married a Latino gentleman, and then with her maiden name. And when she used her name she got all kinds of callbacks. So you can even see it with you know Perez vs. Watts, and still have that inner prejudice as well. We hope that employers are listening, that they recognize this in their system, and know they have got to act to be actively and consciously work to counter that.