There was something inspiring about the swearing in of the 116th Congress in early January. The nation welcomed the most female and most racially diverse Congress in American history. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii wore a leaf-garland. California’s Barbara Lee appeared in Kente cloth. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, defying the (unconstitutional) rule, donned an orange and gold headscarf. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) danced outside her office. Members were sworn in on Bibles, the Quran, the Gita, a book of Buddhist sutras, and, amazingly, the Constitution. America came calling.
North Carolina caught a weak strand of the fever. The 2019 House has 17 new Democratic and 9 new Republican members – a notable increase over 2017. On the Senate side, seven new Democrats and six new Republicans were sworn in. Two years earlier, only five new members had been added, all Republican. Thirty-four women now serve in the House and 10 in the Senate – 26 percent of the membership. That’s an increase, overall, from 2017 – though fewer women were seated in the Senate than in the preceding session. There are now 26 African-Americans in the House, 10 in the upper chamber. One Native American and two Indian-Americans serve in the General Assembly. No Latinos do.
But the overarching North Carolina numbers are misleading. The Republican super-majority was breached in both houses — but large majorities remain in each chamber. Republicans claim a 65-55 edge in the House and 29-21 lead in the Senate. The laws of North Carolina will still be launched from the Republican caucuses in each chamber. On occasion now, thankfully, the products of the Republican lawmakers may be constrained by a bolstered veto power. But the North Carolina General Assembly is still a Republican outfit.
And how do the decision-driving Republican caucuses shape up? Republican Rep. Holly Grange of Wilmington put it this way: “On my side, there’s not a lot of diversity, it’s a middle-age white man club.” Turns out the surprisingly candid Grange put it mildly.
In the 2019 House, the 26 African Americans and one Native American member are all Democrats. All 65 Republicans are white. In the Senate, the 10 African-Americans and 2 Indian-Americans are Democrats. Every Republican (29) is white. So when the majority Republican caucuses repair to their private deliberations to set the rules for North Carolina, only white people attend. There are no blacks, no Latinos, no Native Americans – though 22 percent of Tar Heels are black, 9 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are Native American. Almost 150 years after the enactment of the 15th Amendment, our General Assembly is controlled by a white people’s party. Re-read that sentence.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, to examine the fruits of their last seven years’ labor. The largest racial gerrymanders in history. Repeated “surgically precise” steps to thwart black electoral participation. Laws eliminating race discrimination claims. The repeal of the Racial Justice Act. State encouraged school segregation. Idolatrous protections for Confederate monuments. Legal shielding of police-camera footage. I could go on.
In what other areas of 21st century life would we countenance such equality-destroying predilections? We wouldn’t accept an all white justice system or white-only universities or major businesses or sports programs or entertainment industries or public utilities or rotary clubs. Why in the world would we join, or support, or accept a white political party? Would we still embrace it if it were re-named the “White People’s Party”? What’s the difference? Only the fig leaf? Can we actually be shocked that a white people’s party would eventually deliver the likes of Donald Trump?
Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.