Charleston and racial equality: How it rates with 8 other regions

By Tom Grubisich

Metro Charleston has greater racial disparities than exist in any of the eight regions it's being benchmarked against in a survey designed to measure Charleston's global economic competitiveness.

The survey's executive summary says metro Charleston "has the greatest discrepancies in most measures" when it is compared to Greenville, Raleigh, Richmond, Jacksonville, Fla., Nashville, Austin, Salt Lake City and Seattle - eight cities and regions with which it shares key similarities.

The summary says this about racial disparities in Charleston:

"African American household incomes are lower as a percentage of White income than in any other benchmark region. Similarly, earnings and educational attainment in the Charleston region are lowest when compared to other benchmark regions. Furthermore, these gaps extend beyond racial and ethnic differences. During the past five years, for example, the median wage for the top half of earners increased by more than 5 times the rate of wages for the bottom half of earners."

The survey is part of the "One Region" initiative sponsored by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance to forge more on-the-ground, operational collaboration among the jurisdictionally independent communities comprising Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester Counties. More meaningful regional collaboration, say the sponsors, " will further enhance the economy through advancements in talent, infrastructure and other assets characteristic of a globally competitive metro; an investment in the community for a robust and stable economy for many years to come."

The full report on One Region's survey will come out in May.

In the survey summary, Charleston did much better on gender than racial equality and equity compared to its benchmark communities. For example, female household income is higher relative to male household income than in "virtually every other benchmark region."

Besides looking at the region's performance in achieving equality and equity, the One Region survey is examining greater Charleston pluses and minuses in affordability, quality of place, infrastructure, talent, innovation and entrepreneurship, global fluency and "economic momentum."

The One Region strategy that will be developed from the survey will succeed  the Opportunity Next strategy that has been the region's template for economic development over the past five years.

The One Region strategy will have larger implications because its eight "community dynamics" go beyond the narrower baseline of Opportunity Next, which focused on job creation and product development. This earlier post on Beyond Catfish Row explored the implications of the broader canvas for regional economic development.

Equality and equity - one of those dynamics - is getting increasing attention nationally as metropolitan regions like Charleston confront the mixed results of their often-ambitious plans for economic development.

In her "Remaking Economic Development" report last month, Amy Liu, Vice President and Director of the Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, emphasized the need for inclusion - beginning with race, ethnicity and gender but extending into other areas - to be fully integrated into regional economic development. She said: "Leaders in cities and metro areas have an opportunity to remake economic development - to adopt a broader vision of economic development that can deliver continuous growth, prosperity, and inclusion in cities and metro areas." Her report details the failures and promising responses from region to region. 

Liu didn't cite Charleston in her examples, but, as the One Region survey shows, this region has a number of equality and equity issues waiting to be addressed more directly.

Assisting the Charleston Metro Chamber and Charleston Regional Development Alliance in developing the One Region strategy are Avalanche Consulting of Austin and McCallum Sweeney Consulting of Greenville.

The planning process is being guided by an 80-member advisory group including a diverse leadership from the public and private sectors, nonprofits and educational organizations.