Racial economic divide underpins Charlotte protests

It's not just about law enforcement.

Two nights of violence this week in Charlotte, North Carolina, have been blamed on anger and frustration over the shooting death of a 43-year-old African-American man by police.

But the widespread social unrest in Charlotte, as in other cities, also stems from ongoing economic inequality along racial lines.

The streets were mostly quiet Thursday, after a peaceful prayer vigil Wednesday night turned into an angry march and then a night of violence in the city's normally vibrant downtown. Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy all told employees not to venture into North Carolina's largest city after Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency Wednesday night and called in the National Guard.

The Justice Department also sent a community relations team to the city to help work to resolve the conflict.

Protesters continued to seek a fuller explanation for what happened to Keith Lamont Scott, who police said refused officers' repeated commands to drop a gun. Residents say Scott was unarmed, holding only a book and disabled by a brain injury.

The unrest took many by surprise in Charlotte, a prosperous banking capital of the South with a population of 830,000 people, about a third of whom are black. The city is also a popular destination for tourists and conventions.

The thriving local economy has helped Charlotte achieve one of the fastest growth rates among large U.S. metro areas, more than double the national average.

But that prosperity has been distributed unevenly among racial lines.

While the median income for all U.S. households rose by 5.2 percent last year to $56,516, the first significant gains since the Great Recession, African-American households have not fared as well.

As the median income for white households rose 5.6 percent, to $60,106, black households gained 4.1 percent, to $36,898 in 2015, according to Census data released earlier this month.

That disparity can also been seen in the jobless rate. The national unemployment rate has fallen from a peak of 10 percent in 2010 to 4.9 percent in August. For white workers, the jobless rate stood at 4.4 percent last month, while 8.1 percent of black workers were unemployed. In Charlotte, the jobless rate last year for whites averaged 5.3 percent; for blacks, it was 11.6 percent.

That disparity also extends to business ownership. Of the roughly 21,000 companies with paid employees in the Charlotte region, only 5 percent were owned by blacks in 2012, the latest Census data available.

Closing that gap is critical to addressing the wider racial economic divide, according to entrepreneur Robert Johnson, chairman and founder of the RLJ Cos.

"One of the things this country needs to do is to figure out a way to get more capital flowing in the hands of small-business owners, entrepreneurs, particularly minorities," he told CNBC. "That to me is probably the one stain on the leadership in Washington that nobody seems willing to address."