Days after Rev. William Barber appeared on the front page of the New York Times, receiving effective recognition as the nation’s paramount rising civil rights leader, he was banned from entering the State Legislative Building in Raleigh. General Assembly officials celebrated the internationally-embarrassing censure.
The ban will eventually be overturned in the courts like most of the legislature’s path-breaking experiments in repression. The State House is not a country club, even when Republicans are in power. But the banishment will likely linger as a bragging point in what Sen. Ralph Hise now boasts to be “the most conservative record of any state legislature in the nation.” Or what the New York Times calls North Carolina’s “pioneering work in bigotry.”
Barber’s forced exile was followed a couple days later by Legislative Services Officer, and former Raleigh Mayor, Paul Coble’s dockside bullying of two brave, articulate, courteous and engaged young black male activists, Tyler Swanson and Marcus Bass, when they attempted, with permission, to deliver a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore’s office.
Coble insisted “this is a private office.” When Mr. Swanson responded, “this is also the people’s office,” Coble said, “you won’t have to argue, because I’m going to have you arrested.” Nice move. And quick. With unconcealed venom, Coble added, “this is a constant state of affairs with y’all.” Really. Coble should be fired. He won’t be.
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It has, by now, become crucial for Tar Heels to ask: “What is the North Carolina Republican Party’s actual agenda on race?”
One assumes Republican leaders know at least something of our barbarous and brutal past – slavery, war, a Wilmington coup, voter suppression at gunpoint, terror-enforced Jim Crow, pervasive, legally-imposed dehumanization, marginalization and indignity.
More than twice as many African-Americans live in poverty as whites. Almost 40 percent of black kids are poor, compared to 12 percent of white ones. Over twice as many blacks are unemployed. They experience much higher rates of hunger and home foreclosure than whites. On average, black North Carolina households have six percent of the wealth of white ones. Six percent.
Black children attend high-poverty, troubled schools very, very disproportionately. About twice as many white Tar Heels have college degrees as blacks. Huge empirical studies in Charlotte, Durham and Greensboro reveal outrageously skewed patterns of arrest and seizure.
Almost 60 percent of the NC prison population is black, though 22 percent of our population is. We incarcerate 357 per 100,000 whites and 1,665 per 100,000 blacks. A heavy percentage of imprisoning convictions are drug offenses, dramatically tilted toward blacks, though whites and blacks use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate. Early judicial determinations under the Racial Justice Act found a death penalty process so riven with racism the legislature quickly repealed the statute.
This litany of disparity can be called many things – but it surely reflects a systemic racial subordination, unless those words are drained of all conceivable meaning. Imagine, if you can, the death-defying furor of the white reaction if the ascendant roles were reversed.
And what has been our Republican General Assembly’s response to such wounding subordination? It has repaired to its super-majority caucuses in each chamber, neither of which includes any black member, and waged war on African-Americans. Even conservative justices tell us that our Republican leaders have intentionally, repeatedly and skillfully suppressed black representation in the state legislature. They have applied the same constraining racial tactics to the U.S. House of Representatives. They have surgically diminished the black vote with biased ID and polling practices. They have, separately, removed procedural protections against race discrimination in both the civil and criminal justice systems. They’ve made it harder to discover and reveal police misconduct through video-cam footage. They’ve purposefully increased racial segregation in the public schools and offered legal protection for confederate symbols.
Does this ledger have anything in common with the commands of justice for African-Americans? Anything at all?
Yet these are, undeniably, the words and actions of the NC Republican Party. I am not saying all Republicans are racist. But many apparently are. And many more embrace a racially-tinged agenda to secure partnerships they seem to think necessary for political success. Not unlike Paul Ryan constantly lying for Donald Trump in hopes of getting coveted tax cuts for the rich. But no bargain can remove the taint of this racialized and discrimination-driven pact. All North Carolinians suffer under it. All NC Republicans are responsible for it.
Coble, Berger and Moore owe Swanson, Bass and Barber apologies, not prison terms.
Gene Nichol is a Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina.