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A Black Police Chief In North Charleston?
Published:
11/7/2012 12:22:07 PM

By Barney Blakeney

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt’s announcement last week he will retire at the end of January 2013 comes as a surprise for many. It’s also an opportunity for the city to make a statement. North Charleston should hire a Black police chief.

Diversity always has been a hallmark for North Charleston, formerly the North Area community. As South Carolina’s third largest city, North Charleston has shed its old identity as Charleston’s blue collar stepchild.

It was that blue collar industry - manufacturing and military - that brought so many people of different races, cultures and economic backgrounds together in North Charleston.

Today North Charleston rivals its historically prestigious sister city for modern prominence. In fewer than 50 years the North Area has giant leaped onto the landscape as a vibrant productive urban center.

What North Charleston thus far has been unable to cast off is its perception as a community dominated by a unique class of powerful white males. I call them Brylcream Boys.

Brylcream used to be a hairdressing made for white men. It slicked down their hair without greasing them up.

Brylcream Boys ran things in the old North Area. They controlled the economic, political and social systems. The Brylcream Boys were just as smart as Charleston’s downtown Broad Street crew, and I suspect, just as wealthy. They just didn’t seem as sophisticated.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey is a Brylcream Boy, one of the smartest. He’s smart enough to know how to maintain control in the city, but I’m not sure if he’s smart enough to know how to move his community into a new and unprecedented era.

You see, Black folks in North Charleston constitute the city’s  most populous ethnic group, about 45 percent of the city’s total population.

Like other extraordinary municipal leaders in Charleston County, Summey has done an exceptional job of moving his city into prominence and productivity, but the city’s Black community largely has been left out of the equation.

In the city with the state’s greatest retail sales, Black people own none of it’s highest revenue grossing businesses. Statistically, that makes no sense. Call it what you want, I call it economic racism.

Summey has done a good job with the dog and pony show - he’s got Black faces in prominent places throughout his administration, all of whom answer to a Brylcream Boy somewhere in the administration. But his administration has exhibited little effort to incorporate the Black community into the areas of political and economic power.

Despite having 45 percent of the city’s total population and five majority Black city council districts, only three of North Charleston’s 10 city council representatives are Black. What’s up with that? Where is the leadership from the top?

Now putting a Black man in the police chief’s seat does nothing about North Charleston’s other inequities, but it may be another chip off that brick wall of racism which serves to subjugate the city’s Black population.

I asked several North Charleston city councilmen what they thought of the idea. I got the politically correct responses I expected - we don’t want someone just because he’s Black, we want someone qualified.

First, what makes anyone think there aren’t enough qualified Blacks in law enforcement North Charleston can’t easily find one who is Black. Charleston did and so did Columbia.

In the early 1980s as Charleston sought a new police chief the city faced some of the same dynamics North Charleston faces today - high crime in a city with a majority Black population. Charleston had the same history of being controlled by a few white men.

Then Charleston City Councilman Robert Ford led the cry for a Black police chief. Leaders in the Black community got behind him, they realized what it meant in terms of perception. That reality exists for North Charleston today, but there is no cry from the Black community.

A Black policed chief in North Charleston won’t increase the number of Blacks on city council or promotes through its economic development programs.

But if Summey is smart, hiring a Black police chief could be a first step in chipping away at the brick wall that blocks the city’s path toward true diversity.

The councilmen I talked with all said they would support Summey’s decision to hire a Black police chief. I don’t think the city has the visionary leadership to understand the decision should be promoted not just endorsed. Like I said, that may be a first step in tearing down the wall of racism that impacts North Charleston politics and economics.

I don’t think Summey and the Brylcream Boys of North Charleston are like their counterparts in Charleston and Columbia. They don’t care about perception. And unfortunately, they won’t get any pressure from the Black community.

 

 

 

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