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Noah Smith: Why Charlotte and Raleigh work for black residents

Racial disparities are always going to crop up as an important issue when considering the economic health of an American city. Whether it’s a world-class metropolis like Chicago, a successful midsize city like Minneapolis or Pittsburgh, or a struggling Rust Belt town like Cleveland or Milwaukee, stories about wages and investment and development and business conditions are almost always tempered by a reminder that African-American residents fail to share equally in whatever prosperity the region generates. Neighborhood segregation is rife, with black residents often forced to endure poor or nonexistent social services, unhealthy environmental conditions, deteriorating infrastructure and high crime rates.

While these problems are to be found in every large American city, some cities do a lot better than others. Atlanta and Washington are especially well-known as cities where black Americans can prosper. In both places, black Americans have relatively high median incomes, home and business ownership rates, while both have seen homicides decline by about 75 percent during the last three decades. Additionally, cities in Texas, with their cheap housing and growing economies, score highly.

But there’s something special about North Carolina. Its two biggest cities, Charlotte and Raleigh, have quietly succeeded in doing relatively well by their black residents. Raleigh especially stands out.

Nationally, the median African-American household income is $38,555 — about one-third less than the median for all Americans. In Charlotte and Raleigh, however, black household income is higher than in most other big cities, with Raleigh doing especially well.

Black homeownership rates are also decent, at 41.6 percent in Charlotte and 41.3 percent in Raleigh. Both cities still have considerable black-white income gaps, so this success should be seen in relative terms.

Raleigh and Charlotte are also both known as meccas for black entrepreneurs. Black Enterprise recently declared Raleigh "the startup capital of the South," with a booming venture capital presence. American Underground, a Google-affiliated organization dedicated to helping connect entrepreneurs, is located in Durham, in the Raleigh metropolitan area; 22.4 percent of its startups are minority-owned. Meanwhile, Charlotte, with more than 13,000 black-owned businesses, has worked hard to promote the trend, and nonprofits like BLKTECH Interactive are helping.

Finally, it’s important to note that the attractiveness of North Carolina’s big cities goes beyond simple economics. Both are safe cities as well, with murder rates considerably lower than those of Chicago, Philadelphia or Baltimore. Raleigh has an especially low level of violence.

Since black Americans often bear the brunt of local violence, this means that Raleigh and Charlotte are places where African-American children can grow up in a healthy environment.

How did North Carolina’s cities accomplish this feat? One obvious answer is integration. Both Charlotte and Raleigh score relatively well on measures of neighborhood diversity — surprisingly, considerably ahead of both Washington and Atlanta. Even a casual glance at racial dot maps of American cities shows plenty of areas in Raleigh and neighboring Durham that feature a mix of dots. The number of "intensely segregated" schools in Raleigh remains quite low, though the Republican Party has tried to fight this trend. Charlotte, meanwhile, has even less neighborhood segregation than Raleigh. That doesn’t mean racial tensions are nonexistent, of course — far from it. But when white residents aren’t separated from black residents, it makes it harder to ignore the needs of the latter.

Institutions are another factor. The Carolina Small Business Development Fund has partnered with historically black Shaw University in Raleigh, and created a fund for African-American innovators and provided other support in Charlotte.

Meanwhile, both cities have booming economies. Charlotte, a banking hub, has experienced some of the nation’s fastest job growth, and Raleigh’s metropolitan area is emerging as one of the country’s top technology clusters. Economic growth helps fill government coffers with tax revenue that can then be used to create quality infrastructure, affordable housing, social services, good schools and business-development initiatives.

The attractiveness of Raleigh and Charlotte for black Americans is no secret. Rising numbers of black Americans are moving to the South, and the state of North Carolina has been one of the biggest beneficiaries. But these two cities, even in combination with places like Atlanta, Washington and Houston, can only do so much. To really improve life for black Americans, other cities should copy the successful approach of Raleigh and Charlotte — more integration, healthy economies and active support for black-owned businesses. That won’t solve all the problems experienced by black Americans, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

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