Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / Marchers walk past the AT&T building on ML King Boulevard during the MLK Day march in 2019. New research shows city and county leaders, civic elites pushed policies that resulted in a decline of Black residents.

It's bad enough that a segment of white Chattanooga worked for years to further disenfranchise — even run out — knowingly or unknowingly — thousands of Black families from our city. But now today's political polarization threatens to turn this shameful trend into a runaway train with too many politicians, especially at the state level, working to gerrymander away Black political strength and to stifle the teaching of Black history in schools.

"Black flight at least in Chattanooga from what I know and from what I've read and what I've seen, has been promoted actively by civic elites, oftentimes by elected officials and oftentimes by leaders who've spent tens of millions of dollars to create a place for a certain demographic," said Kenneth Chilton, associate professor of public administration at Tennessee State University in a presentation of his research Sunday to start off a week of virtual events for this year's MLK Week sponsored by the Unity Group.

The decrease in Black residents in Chattanooga and Hamilton County over the past decade — a drop of 5,008 in Chattanooga (7-10%) and 3,472 in the county (about 5%) — is the result of choices made by politicians and civic elites in the area, according to Chilton.

Certainly not all of those choices, perhaps not even most, had a malign intent, and Chattanooga Blacks still make up 31.3% of the city's population and 19.3% of the county's.

But all choices have consequences. In the 21st century, Chattanooga successfully branded itself as a destination for tourists and retirees, as well as a landing spot for young entrepreneurs and a certain demographic, Chilton said.

That was all an effort following on the heels of Chattanooga's manufacturing jobs mostly drying up — at least until Volkswagen settled here, gradually making a small dent in our losses.

What did not have to happen, however, was the rise of overpriced condos and apartments and homes — along with beautification projects — that forced many Black residents from their homes.

Nor did so many homes have to be unaffordable. Chattanooga residential rents rose twice as fast as the national average in 2020 and 2021. What's more, Chattanooga ranked as the 51st most expensive rental market in the nation among the top 100 U.S. cities in May 2021. Our rental rates averaged more than other Southern markets like Knoxville, Memphis and Louisville.

The trend didn't happen everywhere.

The "Black flight" from our area is unlike what happened in Nashville in the past decade, as well as different from the trends seen in white flight during the 1960s, Chilton said. The areas around Nashville saw a net increase in Black residents between 2010 and 2020.

"Why it's happening, we don't necessarily know. Where the people are going, we're not 100% sure," he said. "We do know that African-Americans in and around downtown neighborhoods have been either displaced to suburban locations or are choosing to vote with their feet and move elsewhere for better opportunities, lower costs of living or whatever."

As we noted already, we don't see all malign intentions in this trend. But we do see a wake-up call.

As still-new Mayor Tim Kelly likes to say — we must have one Chattanooga, not two Chattanoogas: one white and affluent (only 11% live in poverty) and one Black and 27% in poverty.

We see evidence of the "two Chattanooga's" all to often. We saw it in the polarization of school board races when candidates of the not-too-distant-past decried calls for "equity" and teacher "bias" training. We saw it in the county's redistricting debates. We saw it in the Tennessee General Assembly's unnecessary ban last year of teaching critical face theory in schools. CRT is a law school program that isn't taught in our schools, but the new law now has some secondary school teachers afraid to teach even basic Black history.

It is important to note that not all Chattanoogans have been part — even unknowingly part — of fostering two Chattanoogas. What's more, some leadership here continues trying to slow and thaw the snowball effect.

A University of Tennessee at Chattanooga "reimagining committee" is recommending that the university overhaul its general education program by adding a minimum of six hours in diversity, equity and inclusion into its slate of required courses.

It's an overdue idea. If approved, it could become effective in the fall of 2023. But it also is an idea already getting pushback.

"In an era where more and more parents are questioning whether a four-year university is the right choice for their child because they see academics being replaced by social indoctrination, requirements of diversity, equity and inclusion courses play right into that scenario," wrote our friend and respected colleague last week on the adjoining conservative editorial page.

We must agree to disagree: If understanding, tolerating and loving our neighbors — of any color, creed, sex or birthplace — is "social indoctrination," then we'd all better throw out the Ten Commandments.

Unity Group's Eric Atkins said the community is "greatly disturbed" by the demographic trends in our city: "So we thought that in order to better engage the community, we needed to have some in-depth discussions."

We couldn't agree more. And godspeed to UTC's reimagining committee. We need the same thinking and effort in our secondary schools, major businesses and government halls.