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A tale of two cities in Charleston, backdrop for Dem debate

To Anton Gunn, Charleston is a tale of two cities - one rich, one poor, and both racially unequal.
Undecided voter Mimi Dias of Charleston wears her Democratic hat before the start of a speech by U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the annual Blue Jamboree in North Charleston, S.C., Nov. 21, 2015. (Photo by Randall Hill/Reuters)
Undecided voter Mimi Dias of Charleston wears her Democratic hat before the start of a speech by U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the annual Blue Jamboree in North Charleston, S.C., Nov. 21, 2015. 

CHARLESTON, South Carolina - To Anton Gunn, Charleston is a tale of two cities - one rich, one poor, and both racially unequal.

"We have significant economically segregated areas," Gunn, a former South Carolina state legislator and senior Obama administration official, told NBCBLK. "If you are poor and black you live in North Charleston," the neighborhood where Walter Scott was fatally shot by a white police officer last year.

"There is no black middle class," said Gunn of the picturesque city of quaint cobble stone streets that will host the Democratic presidential debate on Sunday. The debate, moderated by NBC's Lester Holt and co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, will set issues concerning African Americans in high relief.

The debate will take place just blocks away from Mother Emanuel AME Church, the scene of a horrific shooting spree that left nine black parishioners dead. The shooter, Dylann Roof, known as an advocate of white supremacist views, was arrested in a crime that sparked a national about the racial hatred that still permeates American society.

The city also made news last year for the battle over the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol, a move eventually supported by Gov. Nikki Haley.

While blacks comprise about thirty percent of metropolitan Charleston's population of nearly 700,000, Gunn said they have not shared in the city's prosperity.

"I walk around for days and don't see another black man wearing a tie or a suit," Gunn said. "My daughter has one black kid in her middle class public school."

Gunn, 42, a native of Virginia, relocated to Charleston a year ago to work as chief diversity officer at Medical University of South Carolina. But he first lived in the state in 1990 as a student at the University of South Carolina. He graduated in 1994 and later returned to receive a master's degree in social work. Gunn spent seven years working as a community organizer across the state before serving as state political director of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. He worked in Washington as director of external affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Like in many urban cities across the country, gentrification has resulted in a steep decline in the Charleston's black population. In the downtown peninsula area, the black population has dropped more than 50 percent over the past three decades while soaring rents and housing prices beckon higher income earners.

"Unemployment is super high. Education is segregated. We have lots of failing schools but some of the best private schools in the nation here," Gunn added. "So if you have money you get a good education. If you are poor, you get a poor education."

Black unemployment in South Carolina is 11.8 percent, compared to 4.6 percent among whites, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And while 2012 Census figures show the per capita income for whites in Charleston was $37,193, it was $15,168 for blacks.

Gunn and many other Democrats will be listening closely to determine whether the Democratic presidential candidates will mention income inequality during their first debate of 2016.

"I'll be looking to see if real Democratic principles and approaches will be discussed during the [Democratic] debate on Sunday," Rep. James Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the House and one of the longest-serving African American legislators in Congress, told NBC Black.

"What is very clear there is that Democrats have not been willing to go to the mat on so many issues and, as a result, we have not had lively debates," Clyburn said. "I'm looking for real energy to be displayed Sunday evening."

The congressman said Democrats should be talking more aggressively and openly about poverty and income inequality.

"I think we suffer tremendously when we fail to embrace what the Democratic Party is all about," Clyburn said in an interview. "We've been made to feel like our message is not superior -- and it is."

Meanwhile, Gunn said there are no historically black colleges in Charleston and African Americans are under-represented at Clemson and the University of South Carolina, the state flagship schools. African Americans comprise about six percent of the student body at Clemson, where protesters have called for the renaming of a hall named for U.S. Senator Benjamin Tillman who from the House floor once boasted that blacks were killed to keep them from voting during Reconstruction.

"Downtown has been gentrified and blacks have lost land and ownership of everything on the peninsula," Gunn said. "If you go 15 miles from downtown you will find communities that don't have water or sewer yet. You will see lots of low income black folks."

Gunn said Charleston's public school system also has plenty of challenges.

"Yes, even the public schools are segregated by race and income," Gunn said. "The Academic Magnet School is ranked number 7 in the nation but it has a black student population of 2 percent when the overall school district is 46 percent."

Gunn pointed to an illuminating series of articles by the Charleston Post and Courier that highlighted a range of racial disparities throughout the city.

"Dine in a top restaurant in downtown Charleston and you can go the entire evening without seeing a single person of color," one article said.

"It's a conspicuous reality 55 years after black students staged a transformative sit-in at the S.H. Kress & Co. lunch counter on King Street."

According to Gunn there are no black-owned restaurants downtown. "There are no blacks even waiting tables at the high end places," he said."The only place you are likely to see black folks working downtown is in the kitchen of a restaurant or on the street selling baskets, flowers and other arts and crafts."

He described Charleston as a traditional southern city that takes pride in its thorny history.

"There are paid tours of slave plantations," he said."There are confederate reenactments. There are tours around downtown to the Wharf where 40 percent of all Africans entered the United States as slaves."

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