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NC’s Sorry History on Race Underpins “Coup” By Republicans

December 23, 2016

The Republican Party used to be the “The Party of Lincoln” and the Southern Democrats used to be called “Dixiecrats”… but ever since Richard Nixon launched his Southern Strategy in the late 1960s the two parties have reversed roles… and as a result African Americans continue to retain a second class citizenship status. This is the meta-story behind elections in the South, and the tension that results nationally is particularly notable in North Carolina, a border state that is split down the middle in a very schizophrenic way in terms of its politics. It is a state where an outright racist like Jesse Helms could hold onto a senate set while a progressive like James Hunt was Governor.

In a Progressive blog post Jeff Bryant describes the latest case of schizophrenia in North Carolina where, most recently, a Democrat held the State Superintendent post while a tea party Republican held the Governor’s post. When this was the case, the Governor held considerable power over education, with the ability to appoint State Board members and members to the University of North Carolina Board of Regents. But in November, voters in North Carolina narrowly elected a Democrat to the State House and a pro-privatization Republican to be state superintendent while retaining Republican majorities to both chambers of the State legislature. As part of a “coup” to reduce the impact of this election, the House and Senate in NC convened a hastily called “special session” where they stripped the governor of many powers…. many of which will have an impact on public education:

Republicans robbed incoming Democratic Governor Roy Cooper of his ability to change the composition of state and county boards of elections, diluted the governor’s appointment authority, and rigged the timing of county board leadership to favor Republicans.

Republican lawmakers took away the incoming governor’s ability to make appointments to the State Board of Education and the boards of trustees of University of North Carolina system, made cabinet appointees subject to approval by the senate, and cut the number of appointments the governor can make for government jobs from 1,500 to 425.

The attack on the incoming governor’s power over education appointments is especially radical, as it transfers power from the state board to the new state superintendent of public instruction, Republican Mark Johnson, who defeated the Democratic incumbent, June Atkinson, in November.

Jeff Bryant uses the balance of the article to describe the underlying reason for the attack on education, which is race. To get a historic analysis of the relationship between public education and race, Bryant interviews historian Timothy Tyson, who serves as the Education Director of the North Carolina NAACP. Mr. Tyson offers this synopsis of NC’s sordid history of education:

In Tyson’s account, conservative North Carolinians have always attacked public education as a means of waging political warfare. In the post-Civil War years, white conservatives were generally opposed to public schools. They regarded education as belonging to the privileged class who could afford to pay for it.

Under Reconstruction, however, the state’s Constitution was rewritten in 1868 to include, among many other provisions, the state’s obligation to provide a sound, basic, and free education to every citizen… and by the late 1800s, (a) fusion movement (of black voters joining forces with white progressives) had succeeded in substantially increasing state spending on public education.

As the turn of the last century neared, however, a growing “white supremacy campaign” grew in power until it wrested state government away from the progressive coalition in 1900 and installed… measures to strip the vote from black North Carolinians.

This (resulted in a) separate and unequal system of public education, enacted largely to keep political power in the hands of white conservatives, is what built the social order of segregation, which prevailed until the Civil Rights Movement toppled it in the 1960s.

“Education is foundational to North Carolina’s sense of itself as a progressive southern state,” Tyson insists.

But, as Jeff Bryant notes with dismay, the Democrats in North Carolina have not embraced public education in North Carolina or elsewhere in the South:

What doesn’t make sense is that many Democrats – in the South and elsewhere –  don’t defend public schools very forcefully, even as they stand up for voting rights and democratic principles.

Indeed, the trend for nearly thirty years has been that Democrats compromise with Republicans on education—by accepting privatization efforts like vouchers and charter schools, for example, by agreeing to sustain inadequate funding levels, and by stifling the voices of classroom teachers and their unions.

The lesson for Democrats from the Republican Carolina coup is that public education is a cornerstone of our democracy, and closely related to the fight for voting rights, racial justice, and a more equal society. Democrats must resurrect the conviction of their fusion heritage to fight for free, accessible, and high-quality public schools for all children.

I share Mr. Bryant’s perspective on the Democrats. Both President Obama and their 2016 candidate Hilary Clinton supported privatization efforts and watered down school choice as a means of providing “equity” while side-stepping the unjust housing patterns that are leading to re-segregation of schools.

And I would take Mr. Bryant’s conclusions a step further: what we are witnessing now in NC we are likely to witness even more in the coming years unless the Democrats “resurrect the conviction of their fusion heritage”. If Democrats and citizens allow Mr. Trump’s prospective appointees to carry out their mission of disabling the various agencies they are heading we will all be living in a country that resembles NC more than a country that resembles, say, CA, OR, WA, or VT. Our children are depending on us to restore democracy.

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