To seem rather than to be

To seem rather than to be

- in Weekly Briefing

The disconnect between words and deeds when it comes to lifting up communities of color

Gov. Pat McCrory is far from the first politician to contradict North Carolina’s state motto (“esse quam videri” — “to be rather than to seem”) when it comes to questions of race and government’s badly flawed efforts down through the years to heal the wounds stemming from the state’s original sins of slavery and racism. Many a public official has loudly professed his or her deep commitment to equality and equal opportunity for all citizens and then quietly gone back to advancing policies that act to prevent such progress.

Moreover, unlike some unrepentant fringe right wingers, McCrory is clearly no racist. To his credit, the Governor seems genuinely sincere in his desire for a color-blind society in which racial prejudice and discrimination are things of the past. Were this 1964 or ‘74 rather than 2014, one might even be tempted to describe him as a “liberal” on such matters.

Unfortunately for the Governor, however, we are already well into the 21st Century and it is now long past the point in history during which public proclamations and symbolic acts in support of equal opportunity are enough to mark political leaders as “progressive” or “forward-thinking” on matters of race. Today, more than 400 years since whites began importing Africans into what became the United States of America, nearly 150 years since the end of the Civil War and 50 years since the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, nothing less than determined, intentional and sustained public action is necessary to heal the wounds and bind our society into one, undivided people. Sadly, the Governor and many of his political allies do not seem to grasp this simple truth.

The latest contradiction

Compelling evidence of the disconnect between what is truly necessary in modern North Carolina and the policy agenda of the state’s political leadership was on public display once again yesterday when the Governor appeared in Charlotte at an event promoting the work of the venerable nonprofit known as the United Negro College Fund. This is from an announcement last week that promoted the event:

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory next week will become State Honorary Chair of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), which supports five Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the state. Those institutions are Johnson C. Smith University (Charlotte), Bennett College for Women (Greensboro), Shaw University (Raleigh), Saint Augustine’s University (Raleigh) and Livingstone College (Salisbury).

Governor McCrory continues the tradition of North Carolina Governors serving as the UNCF’s State Honorary Chair, as every Governor since James G. Martin has done so.…

Governor McCrory recognizes the need to support students at the five UNCF schools across the state of North Carolina, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college and who would not have the opportunity for a college degree without the help of the UNCF.

In today’s competitive economy, higher education is a critical need for our workforce. The work of UNCF helps prepare more of our minority youth for the jobs of the future that will bring our state forward, and I am proud to support their efforts,’ said Governor McCrory.”

 These are clearly not the words or deeds of a racist. Sadly, however, they are the words and deeds of a man who is either disingenuous or unaware when it comes to race and politics.

 Cuts to higher education that fall hardest on HBCU’s

There is, of course, no better and more blatant example of the conflict between McCrory’s words and his actual policies than the way his administration has dealt with the University of North Carolina and, in particular, the system’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

To put it simply and plainly, the McCrory administration has placed a bull’s eye on the UNC system. In the opening weeks of his administration, the Governor went on a national right-wing talk show to blast academia. Then, in keeping with what has long been a personal passion of McCrory’s Budget Director (conservative chain store magnate and political financier Art Pope), the new state budget slashed UNC funding (see pages F11-13) and prodded system leaders to cut programming and scholarships, scale back ambitions for growth and just generally treat higher education less like a public right and more like a special and pricey privilege. (Rumor has it that Pope actually covets the job of current system president, Tom Ross).

And not surprisingly, such cuts fall hardest on HBCU’s, which – even during good times – have always struggled to attract their fair share of funding. Add to this the inherently challenging mission of HBCU’s (i.e. serving a student base that’s poorer and more marginalized) and the inevitable shortage of wealthy alums capable of making up for the shortfall in public funding, and it’s easy to see why the new budget cuts perpetuate a vicious cycle.

A recent article in Raleigh’s News & Observer put it this way:

Historically, HBCUs have been under-resourced, and they have always been in catch-up mode in terms of buildings, technology and faculty hiring. In this way, private black colleges are, by and large, in a more precarious position because they are driven by tuition dollars and serve a population that is disproportionately lower-income.”

In other words, when the UNC system catches cold, HBCU’s get the flu. And, however, decent the Governor’s words in supporting the United Negro College Fund, there is simply no way that that group’s help can amount to anything more than a throat lozenge for a set of institutions that all need large and consistent fiscal transfusions.

A long and disturbing list

The treatment dished out to UNC and the HBCU’s is, however, just one of many current state policies that seek to roll back even the modest progress of recent decades in combating the vestiges of racism. Some of the other most obvious examples include:

Enacting the “monster” voter suppression law that in one noxious and calculated, 56-page fell swoop, decimated years of progress in making the ballot box accessible to poor and minority voters.

Imposing huge and debilitating appropriation cuts(see pages H16-17) to nonprofits specializing in economic development in minority communities – As analyst Allan Freyer of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center wrote last April when the McCrory/Pope team first proposed the cuts: “Both the governor and leaders in the General Assembly place a lot of stake in the argument that the poor should take responsibility for lifting themselves out of poverty. These economic development nonprofits provide the very tools that help poor families and poor communities achieve this goal, so it makes little sense to eliminate them.”

Repealing the Racial Justice Act – Even for nice guys who profess good intentions, it’s hard to imagine a more “in your face” broadside at the state’s minority community than repealing a law designed to ensure that society’s ultimate penalty is not imposed in a racially discriminatory way.

Gutting the already threadbare safety net – From unemployment insurance to Medicaid to SNAP/Food Stamps, the message has been as consistent as it has been hateful and thinly-veiled for the past 14 months: social safety net programs are bloated, overly-generous and a crutch that promotes sloth – especially in low-income minority communities.

In other words…

Occasional nice words, good intentions and sunny, superficial commitments (that, conveniently, come with no requirement of meaningful sacrifice for people of wealth and power) are better than overt hate, but when it comes to improving the lives of people seeking to overcome hundreds of years of grinding, systemic racism, the difference is minimal. This is especially true when the happy words help to cloak policies that the haters, themselves, endorse. That Pat McCrory seems to remain blissfully oblivious to this hard reality is one of the most maddening and destructive aspects of his governorship.

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.
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