A beacon of the New South, Charlotte has grown rapidly and its population transformed over the past century. Plantations worked by slaves, cotton mills, railroads, banks and more laid the groundwork for Charlotte’s boomtown status. But its residents do not reap the benefits of this wealth equally. The city ranked last out of 50 large cities for income mobility according to a 2013 study.
Mobility and opportunity are directly affected by an old kind of data with new implications in the internet age—criminal records. Our work in Charlotte grapples with the impact of data and surveillance on people trying to harness some of the economic success of the city while the label of a past conviction is a barrier to employment, services, and housing. African-American residents are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts in North Carolina. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery continues.
City websites highlight Charlotte’s moderate response to the civil rights movement, and it is true that the business community was proactive in dismantling segregation in public accommodations. Yet white supremacists bombed African American community leaders’ homes and the school district fought integration up to the Supreme Court. Today, Charlotte spends millions to equip police with body cameras in the name of countering bias and promoting accountability. But the cameras did not prevent officers shooting dead a young black man in 2016, nor did they capture the incident. Community outrage boiled over in the streets, and organizing efforts continue, including agitation for broader criminal justice reform.