Charting the Civic Landscape: The Interested Bystander in Charlotte Context


Widely regarded as a world-class international city, Charlotte boasts a demographically diverse population, well-educated residents, and a thriving economy that has, in part, stimulated and attracted both domestic and international migration, capital, and acclaim. Home to the largest population in the state, the Queen City also serves as the economic epicenter of the state, touting a robust financial services sector that anchors the global banking industry in the southern United States. Nevertheless, the Queen City is paradoxical in many ways, with social, economic and political impediments that confound equitable growth, opportunity, and prosperity for those that reside within its political jurisdiction.

Notwithstanding the confluence of sports, hospitality, entertainment, and banking industries that drives the local economy, Charlotte is home to exceptionally high levels of racialized residential and school segregation patterns and deeply embedded pockets of concentrated poverty that perpetuates a system of uneven distribution of public resources, educational attainment, and economic opportunities. In fact, Charlotte holds the dubious distinction of 50 out of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in terms of intergenerational social mobility.

Subsequently, pervasive intergenerational social immobility found in Charlotte further problematizes initiatives and policies by philanthropic, civic, and governmental leaders to dismantle barriers impeding access to social capital, economic prosperity, and educational opportunities for marginalized communities.In fact, a report authored by Gene Nichols and Heather Hunt claims that “no issue embodies Charlotte’s increasing problems of polarization and marginalization more explicitly, and more dramatically, than its expanding and heavily racialized concentrated poverty. Charlotte is home, in brief, to both North Carolina’s greatest wealth and economic prowess and its most crushing and expansive deprivation.”

Further compounding the city’s paradoxical social milieu, the officer-involved shootings of African American men, most recently Jonathan Ferrell and KeithLamont Scott, set off a political firestorm that sparked protests, demands for greater police accountability, and surfaced deeply entrenched racial tensions between law enforcement and communities of color.

The confluence of these challenges likely influences who engages in civic life, how they engage, and whether and to what degree their interests are represented.


Using Charlotte as a case study, this research project seeks to explore how the local landscape influences civic engagement. In particular, the population of interest are those termed “Interested Bystanders” or people who are paying attention to the issues around them, but not acting on those issues. This research builds on user research conducted on a national scale by the Google Civic Innovation Team in 2014.

The research presented herein also considers the behaviors and motivations of Interested Bystanders in Charlotte as well as their informational and social influences and the mechanisms that connect online and offline civic behaviors.