Progressive Voices

“People of Color lobby day”: More important than ever

On Wednesday March 9th, hundreds of people from across North Carolina will flood the halls of the People’s House (the N.C. Legislature) in Raleigh for our annual “People of Color, HK on J Justice & Unity Legislative Day.” We believe “People of Color” means people of all colors who are against racism and classism. This People’s Lobby is co-sponsored by a Movement of more than 100 community organizations, religious groups and other nonprofits along with the 120 branches of the organization I’m fortunate enough to lead, the North Carolina NAACP.

One question that is asked each year on the occasion of this event is: Why?  Why is such a day necessary?

On a superficial level, of course, it’s true that no single group or collection of groups can speak on every matter for all people of color. People of color come in an almost unlimited number of hues and views. It would be folly to pretend otherwise. So this is not a ‘black people of color” day.  “People of color” signifies the multi-racial nature of the Movement. This movement is a moral movement, rooted in the best part of North Carolina’s rich history of multi-racial “fusion” politics.

So when we dig a little deeper, we quickly see why such an event is not only appropriate, but absolutely necessary in March 2011.

March 9 is not just a day for black, brown, and white people to gather and lobby their elected officials.  It’s a day for people of good will of all colors – a diverse quilt that includes black, brown, white and all shades in between – to lobby for an anti-racist, anti-poverty policy agenda that will improve the lives of people of color and our community as a whole and advance the common good.

The 2011 People of Color volunteer lobbyists have plenty of common objectives around which to rally. Despite decades of painstaking progress, an obscene proportion of North Carolinians of color remain second class citizens. Although they have the same dreams and work just as hard, if not harder, than others, on the whole they have lower incomes, less wealth and opportunity, less education, shorter life expectancies, and suffer more indignities than their white fellow North Carolinians.

Is this always the case? Of course not. Many whites remain mired in poverty and many people of color have, thankfully, escaped its clutches. Still, statistics don’t lie. Though our state has made much progress, it clearly has a long way to go to erase the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and the coincidental oppression of many poor white people that resulted from the official state policies in effect as recently as the 1970′s.

There is no mystery about this ugly history. Experts who study such matters have demonstrated repeatedly that strong, sound, intentional action by public institutions can effectively address the inequality of wealth and opportunity that still plagues our state. We know for a fact that injustice and inequality are reduced when our state dedicates itself to building sound, basic and fully integrated systems of high quality public education.  We know for a fact that when we guarantee real economic justice with good, well-paying jobs and workers’ rights, it greatly reduces the high social costs of poverty and despair.  We know for a fact that when we honor the constitutional right to equal protection under the law – in the criminal justice system, in voting rights and in the relationship between individuals and corporations — we take giant steps toward One North Carolina, with liberty and justice for all.

Obvious as these remedies may be, however, making them a reality is always difficult. Narrow, powerful interests are deeply invested in the status quo. They fear the smallest step toward healing the divisions of race and class. They are often blind to the fact that everyone – even they – would benefit in the long run if these righteous changes were realized. They spend millions of dollars trying to convince people of modest means to embrace the ideology of division and oppression and are often able to convince them to vote against their own best interests.

In 2011, we are witnessing the results of this electoral irony. Right now, a newly-elected crop of ultra-conservative state and local leaders, funded in large measure by narrow corporate interests, is aggressively advancing an agenda that will not just retard progress for people of color, but roll it back.

Whether it’s re-segregating and undermining our public schools; trying to put public money in private schools; disinvesting in community economic development that creates good jobs and healthy communities; limiting the rights of workers and consumers in their dealings with corporations; restoring barriers to the ballot box for the poor and elderly; resisting reforms that begin to make our criminal justice system fairer for all; or ignoring solutions that might halt the growth in the disastrously expensive prison-industrial complex; these officials seem bent not just upon returning our state to the 20th Century, but repealing the gains of the last 50 years.

So, will there always be a need for a People of Color Lobby Day?  Let’s hope not. Like many of you, I dream of a day in which it will no longer be necessary to fight these battles. Right now, however, there’s plenty to do – more perhaps than at any time in the last 50 years.

Please join us in Raleigh this Wednesday, at the People’s House, at Our House, to continue this critically important work.

Rev. Dr. William Barber is the Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro and the President of the North Carolina NAACP.