'White supremacy' Part 2: Charleston's big gap in income by race

by Tom Grubisich

Charleston has one of the worst racial income divides in the country. It's worse than the income gap between whites and blacks in every peer city - Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta, Austin and more (see chart below).

The median income for a white family in Charleston-North Charleston is $64,553; for a black family it's $29,799 (2015 figures) That means that more than 15,000 black families in Charleston and North Charleston are living close to the poverty guideline - $24,250. (Go here to see why "poverty guideline" is preferred to "poverty level.")

Charleston's large tourism-hospitality industry, with its disproportionately large numbers of lower-paying service jobs, continues to exert strong downward pressure on all income, regardless of race, in metro Charleston. But these are the primary reasons for Charleston's yawning gap in income by race:

  • Inter-generational poverty.
  • Racial segregation and isolation in latter-day "Catfish Rows" (i.e. "The Neck").
  • Housing, transportation and other local-governmental policies that reinforce the conditions that lock blacks into lower-paying service jobs.
  • Public education that doesn't meet the needs of the emerging majority of its students - predominantly poor blacks.
  • Community economic development that isn't adequately anchored by racial equity and social justice.

The racial income gap is set in motion years before blacks enter the workforce, in third and fifth grades, if not earlier.

"Charleston County is very bad for income mobility for children in poor families," the New York Times "Upshot" site said in a report in May 2015. "It is better than only about 10% of [other U.S.] counties.

The solution isn't in Washington, say the university researchers behind the "Upshot" report, Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren of Stanford. "The broader lessons of our analysis is that social mobility should be tackled at a local level," they're quoted.

The metro area's two big business associations - the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and Charleston Regional Development Alliance - are spearheading development of a "One Region" strategy to make greater Charleston more competitive in the global economy by making multiple jurisdictions function more cohesively. Steve Warner, Vice President of Global Marketing and Regional Competitiveness at CRDA, told Beyond Catfish Row recently that "equity and social justice will be part of the 'continuing conversation.'

If that conversation become policy, if the policy is implemented, then Charleston can very likely say goodbye to its present 62nd-worst ranking in white-black income among 70 metro regions.