A cancer that threatens to return

A cancer that threatens to return

- in Weekly Briefing


Having put racism in remission, America moves to turn off the therapy

There are a lot of fundamental ideological battles underway in the United States right now. Americans generally (and North Carolinians in particular) are debating the basics of tax policy, public education, healthcare reform, voting rights, guns, the death penalty, climate change, abortion rights, immigration policy, LGBT rights and even the role of government itself.

No single subject, however, intersects with more of these issues (and dozens of others, for that matter) than America’s great original sin of racism and the enormous and destructive societal divide it spawned and continues to spawn.

Try as some might to deny their existence, wish them away and/or absolve themselves from personal responsibility, the hard and irrefutable truth is that America’s great racial rifts continue to plague the republic.

Sure, enormous progress has occurred in many places. If racism is a cancer upon the body politic, it certainly is and has been in remission for some time.

That said, to claim that the country is “cured” of the illness – much less the horrific scars it produced – is as dangerous as it is foolish. All across the nation, in community after community and in debate after debate, racism and racial divisions lurk – sometimes out in the open and sometimes under the surface – ready to rear their ugly heads, reclaim their grip and resume their virulent spread.

The evidence is there to see for all who will look – both in the overt actions and statements of still unrepentant hate groups and in the only somewhat less obvious but still overwhelming income, employment, wealth and health divides that still separate whites and racial minorities. To deny its existence is akin to the cancer patient who tries to wish away a tumor or troubling blood test results.

Debating the therapy

And so it is that much of the national and state policy debate has been and continues to be about the appropriate public responses to our great racial divides. Should we work to actively combat the rifts that plague us with concerted and intentional public action – new “therapies” designed to actively engage and address the problems – or should we opt for a more passive approach that relies upon the passage of time and what might be best described as “self-healing”?

For most of its history, America has chosen the latter course of treatment. The Civil War, of course, served as a monumental exception – an episode of massive and invasive national “surgery” – but, save for that brief spasm of radical activism, the only other period of sustained and active intentional public action occurred during the latter decades of the 20th Century.

Today, sadly, that period of aggressive national therapy appears to be at an end. One need only look at the events of recent days at both the national and state levels to find new confirmation of this distressing reality. Consider the following:

The ongoing demise of racial diversity in education – On Monday of this week, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded and extended the nation’s decades-long drift away from the promotion of racial diversity in public education. In the case of Fisher v. the University of Texas, the Court ordered the lower courts to impose a “strict scrutiny” review of the university’s admissions policy (which uses race as one factor among many in building a diverse student body). Though Texas’ admissions policy may survive, the Court’s ruling clearly cuts another leg from beneath the nation’s surviving affirmative action policies.

The erosion of the Voting Rights Act – Yesterday – a day after the affirmative action decision – the Court struck another blow against intentional public action to combat racism and its effects by striking down important segments of the Voting Rights Act. As NC Policy Watch Courts and Law Reporter Sharon McCloskey reported:

“In its 5-4 decision today in Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially gutted the requirement that covered jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination (including 40 counties in North Carolina) seek approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures.”

Repeal of the Racial Justice Act – Last week, Governor Pat McCrory quietly signed legislation to effectively repeal North Carolina’s groundbreaking 2009 law known as the Racial Justice Act. The law, which had already been used to demonstrate racial bias in the application of the death penalty in small number of cases, was a modest effort to curb some of the worst abuses of a criminal justice system that has been demonstrated time and again to discriminate against black and brown defendants. It would not have caused a single guilty person to be released from jail. Those successful in proving their claims would have still faced life behind bars without parole. Nonetheless, the measure was subject to ferocious – even bloodthirsty – attacks from conservative opponents.

The move to defund state minority economic development programs – For decades, North Carolina has – along with multiple private foundations and forward-looking corporations – invested comparatively modest sums in an array of nonprofit economic development groups dedicated to lifting up minority-owned businesses and struggling communities. It is actually a fundamentally conservative approach to attacking poverty and inequality that emphasizes the development of for-profit businesses and private housing providers. And over the decades, it has been remarkably effective in providing real opportunity to thousands upon thousands of North Carolinians living in neglected communities. Nonetheless, in yet another case of ending the therapy before the illness is cured, conservative budget writers in the General Assembly have targeted the programs for elimination in the FY 2014-15 budget.

Going forward: The cancer returns?

What the impact will be of the recent trend to end our public “therapies” for racism and our racial divides is, of course, the subject of great debate. Advocates on the right bristle at the suggestion that racism is still at work in our society even as they do their worst to demonize the messengers like Rev. William Barber and the North Carolina NAACP. Just yesterday, the head of the Pope-Civitas Institute sent out a fairly hysterical fundraising appeal under the heading “Would they call you a racist?” in which he said the following about the Moral Monday protesters in Raleigh:

“For most, it’s about making sure the tax dollars keep flowing. For some, it’s about staying in the spotlight by perpetuating grievances. And for some others, getting arrested is just a thing to do with an afternoon. – Kind of like going for a joyride and getting a speeding ticket in the process…. These are exactly the people who threaten to destroy our great state by keeping government BIG, demanding special favors, and screaming about losing them when they never should have gotten them in the first place.”

As they do in so many other areas, these conservatives argue that public solutions to the problems that afflict society are either unnecessary or obsolete.

Progressives, on the other hand, will keep pushing. It’s not that they believe that there hasn’t been progress or that all of their adversaries are racists of the George Wallace and Lester Maddox ilk – even if the tactics are sometimes reminiscent; it’s that they recognize the difference between being cured and being in remission.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger put it this way in a recent editorial:

“The enduring effects of nearly four centuries of racial subjugation and subordination — much of it state-sanctioned — have not vanished even though the United States has a black president. We may hope that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s prediction in 2003 that affirmative action would not be necessary in 25 years is true, but the time frame may sadly be too brief, given our fraught history.”

The developments of recent days only serve to confirm the accuracy of Bollinger’s analysis

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.