Danny King
Danny King

A middle-age, white reporter and the 20-something black server at Charlotte's Midnight Diner shared a funny moment on a crisp Wednesday morning earlier this month.

With classic soul and more contemporary R&B tunes, ranging from Hugh Masekela's "Grazing in the Grass" to Mary J. Blige's "No More Drama," blaring in the background, the reporter had just polished off a plate of corned beef hash and was in the process of signing his credit card receipt when he sheepishly remarked that he thought he was about to make off with the server's pen.

Upon further examination, it turned out that the server and the reporter had received identical, red-and-gray ballpoint pens emblazoned with a Marriott logo, thanks to the fact that the hotelier was hosting an event in the city.

"That's weird," the server said, laughing.

During this year's Summer Olympics broadcasts, Apple regularly ran a television ad showing images of people from around the world and backed it with a voice-over of Maya Angelou reciting her poem "Human Family," the refrain of which is, "We are more alike, my friends, than we are not alike."

And while cynics might claim that the ad was an exercise in crass commercialism, that sentiment popped into this reporter's head during my first visit to Charlotte.

To say that the North-South dynamic among U.S. citizens has been a complicated one since this country's inception is an understatement.

As this Yankee arrived in Charlotte earlier this month to cover the aforementioned Marriott event, I felt some trepidation about being in North Carolina's largest city, burdened as I was with a lifelong Northerner's view of the South, coupled with the knowledge that race-related riots resulting in the shooting of a protester had only recently ended.

Yet 48 hours later, an all-too-brief opportunity to explore various parts of central Charlotte revealed that my fears had been unfounded. In fact, out of the dozens of cities I've visited, with the possible exception of Chicago, Charlotte appeared to be the most truly integrated North American metropolis.

Part of the story is told by the numbers. Charlotte's population is 35% black, compared with 26% for New York and about 13% for the overall U.S. population. More than that, though, was what seemed to be a spirited, open dialogue, whether between employees and managers within the walls of the Charlotte Marriott City Center or among co-workers walking together to the high-rises along uptown Charlotte's Tryon Street.

Their chatter only tended to make North Carolina's challenges with regard to race relations, LGBT rights and, most recently, politics, all the more distressing. First, there were last month's riots, which were spurred by the fatal Sept. 20 shooting of an African-American named Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer. In the public mind, Charlotte suddenly became a place of civil unrest and racial discord.

Then there was the Oct. 16 firebombing of a Republican Party office in Hillsborough, about 130 miles northeast of Charlotte. While no one was hurt in the late-night attack, it reinforced the image of North Carolina as a place of growing civil unrest while reminding historically aware visitors of the firebombing incidents in the South that targeted black churches and homes during the 1960s civil rights movement.

What might have the largest impact on Charlotte's tourism industry, however, is the national outcry triggered by North Carolina House Bill 2 (HB2). Signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in March, the bill overruled Charlotte ordinances that had enabled transgender individuals to choose their public bathroom accommodations according to what they considered their gender identity. McCrory took the opportunity at the time to say that Charlotte's ordinances "defied common sense."

The response across the country was swift and almost universally negative, threatening a $5 billion chunk of the economy in a region that attracts 27 million annual visitors, about half the number of travelers to New York, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

For example, in March, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee officially barred all city-funded, nonessential travel to North Carolina, becoming the first city to do so. In July, the NBA pulled its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, eventually moving it to New Orleans. And last month, the NCAA said it would move at least seven events scheduled for this year and next, including two rounds of its men's basketball tournament, out of the state.

At the same time, entertainers ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam to Cirque du Soleil canceled shows in the state to protest the law.

At a press conference during the Marriott International event, CEO Arne Sorenson used the grand opening of the company's "beta hotel" initiative at its uptown Charlotte property to make his stance clear when he responded to a reporter's question.

"The HB2 law is bad for business in North Carolina, period," Sorenson said. "It's hard to calculate the impact, because often groups decide not to book and don't tell us why they're not booking, so you can't calculate every bit of lost business. The frustrating thing for us is that we know the people of North Carolina to be hospitable and welcoming to travelers around the world, and the bathroom wars are putting up just the opposite signal to travelers outside of North Carolina."

In line with Sorenson's comments, the company-owned Charlotte Marriott City Center installed plaques outside its ground-floor public restrooms stating, "All genders welcome."

It's not fair to question the motives behind the boycotts -- they could, in fact, eventually force the government to change its stance -- but in the meantime, there's no question they hurt the 125,000 people who work in the Charlotte-area hospitality and leisure industries and, even more so, the owners of businesses such as the Midnight Diner, which appear to have toed the line by employing a mix of workers commensurate with local racial demographics.

It reminded me of the 2012 documentary about musician Paul Simon being chastised by the African National Congress for violating its boycott by traveling to then-apartheid South Africa to record his 1986 album "Graceland"; Simon and his fellow recording artists argued that the boycott was hurting black South African musicians disproportionately.

Then there's the issue of moral high ground. While San Francisco's Lee preaches his own city's progressive stance, hundreds of Latino families are being pushed out of that city's Mission District because of gentrification, and San Francisco's black population, which stands at about 6%, has been halved in the past three decades. This former San Francisco resident would argue that in reality, the City by the Bay is far more segregated than Charlotte.

There's nothing simple about these issues. The argument that the boycotts could generate enough political pressure to reverse HB2 is a legitimate one, while the recent firebombing illustrated that the state is not immune to civil unrest and intimidation.

Moreover, racial tensions are still an issue, as personified last month by an elderly African-American, piano-playing street musician in uptown Charlotte belting out the lyrics to one of the songs from the Broadway musical "Hamilton" while interspersing the N-word in certain spots.

Still, my experience in Charlotte revealed it to be a city worth visiting. As James Mitchell, a black councilman, asserted at the Marriott event, Charlotte is "a welcoming place" for travelers.

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI