Our regime of racial subordination is holding down black people

Sugar Creek Charter School serves mostly African American students from low-income homes.
Sugar Creek Charter School serves mostly African American students from low-income homes. Observer File Photo

Last week, with the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, we saw a good deal of taking stock. Dreams and progress; drawbacks and shortcomings; steps forward, stumbles back. Little of it, unsurprisingly, focused specifically on North Carolina. So I offer, belatedly, a few words of description and challenge.

Twice as many blacks (24 percent) as whites (12 percent) in the Tar Heel State live in poverty. The gap widens for children — 14 percent of white kids and 38 percent of black ones are poor. And it expands even further for kids under six (about 50 percent of black children). Twice as many African-Americans are unemployed as whites. Twice as many are hungry or food insecure.

Most of our counties reporting brutal child poverty rates, approaching 50 percent, have large numbers of African-Americans: Northampton, Chowan, Scotland, Vance and Edgecombe. That’s also true for our federally-designated persistent poverty counties.

These income-based disparities are stunning but they pale in comparison to measures of wealth — the accumulation of money and assets over time and generations. Black households in North Carolina have, on average, only 6 percent of the wealth possessed by white households. Three times as many black families as white ones have negative net worth.

Black children attend, very disproportionately, North Carolina’s highest-poverty public schools. Under the state’s A-F grading system, almost all high poverty schools receive very poor grades while almost all high wealth schools excel. A 2015 study by the University of Pennsylvania determined that black students make up 26 percent of North Carolina public school enrollment, but account for 51 percent of school suspensions. In Chapel Hill-Carrboro, black students make up 13.2 percent of the student body and receive 52.7 percent of the suspensions. About twice as many white Tar Heels have a college degree as African-Americans.

The North Carolina Department of Correction reports a prison population of about 36,000. Over 56 percent of the inmates are African-American, though 21 percent of the state’s population is black. Thirty-eight percent of the prison cohort is white, though whites make up over 70 percent of the overall populace. North Carolina incarcerates 203 whites per 100,000 and 915 blacks. Huge empirical studies of traffic stops, searches and arrests in Charlotte, Greensboro, Fayetteville and Durham found gaping and unexplainable disparities based on race. Analogous reports comparing blacks and whites in employment, housing, health care, education and access to credit have reached the same demoralizing conclusion.

What is to be said of such a wounding, pervasive and equality-defying litany?

I limit myself to five points.

First, unless the term is to be drained of all meaning, North Carolina experiences, at present, an intense, overarching and systemic (“of or relating to the entire body of an organism”) regime of racial subordination. Black North Carolinians encounter dramatic and debilitating differences in income, poverty, employment, housing, wealth, education, health care, law enforcement practice, criminal justice outcomes and imprisonment — to name only the most obvious. The disparities have existed in potent measure every day of the state’s long history.

Second, disturbing as the systemic subordination is, it is never — or almost never — mentioned, contested or targeted for remedy in our public discourse. A silence constantly muffles its presence in our electoral campaigns and legislative assemblies. It is, apparently, thought to be as natural and unobjectionable as the humidity of summer or the rise and fall of the coastal tides.

Third, if the comparative disabilities were reversed, and North Carolina whites were faced with such diminished relative fortunes, the halls of power would wail of unbearable exigency. Imagine the relief which would be demanded, and secured, if young white males were being incarcerated at four or five times the rate of blacks. Emergency sessions would be endless.

Fourth, given the ubiquitous subordination continuously experienced by African-Americans in North Carolina, it is astonishing that the state’s dominant political party would launch, effectuate, and readily defend what constitutes a multi-faceted war upon people of color. Ignoring the challenging plight of black Tar Heels, apparently, hasn’t proved sufficient. Our legislative leaders have felt compelled to move farther — targeting black citizens as if they were dreaded adversaries.

Fifth, if past is prologue, I will soon receive a cascade of letters and messages complaining, with some vigor, that I have listed and outlined North Carolina’s yawning racial disparities. Many will express annoyance at being reminded of such realities. Imagine how annoying it must be to actually live them.

Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.