August 22, 2013
North Carolina. Seriously, what the hell? The state’s General Assembly has gone totally rogue since Pat McCrory was elected last November, leaving both the legislature and the Governor’s mansion in GOP control for the first time in over 100 years. Since April, Republicans have been on a legislative rampage that’s made the Tarheel State first the target of incredulous humor, then the object of widespread derision and, increasingly, the recipient of some serious Federal side eye. Sure, we all had a good chuckle when they tried to exempt themselves from the Constitution, but now that they’ve instituted the country’s most repressive voting laws targeting the poor, minorities and college students,the joke doesn’t seem so funny. People are starting to ask what the Department of Justice could do to right things ahead of the 2014 midterms. The extremely depressing answer is, probably not much.
It’s all terribly upsetting, and for those of us who’ve lived in NC, also rather perplexing. You see, there was a time not so long ago when North Carolina was a beacon of hope in Dixie, a model for the South’s economic and social reintegration into the US (who knew it would take so long? Lincoln at least suspected). It was a Southern state where non-Southerners like my California hippie parents could relocate, as they did when I was 7, without feeling as though they’d been dragged back in time 50 years. There are many reasons for the state’s comparatively moderate political history, but in my personal experience much of it boils down to two things: lots of colleges and lots of Quakers. Quakers are sort of the Original Gangstas when it comes to things like race equality, women’s rights and progressive politics generally. Did you know that North Carolina has one of the largest Quaker populations in the US? It’s true! They settled in North Carolina very early on, founded a bunch of schools and were active abolitionists, and basically made their bleeding-heart influence felt throughout the state. The college I attended was a stop on the Underground Railroad, for Pete’s sake. We had a plaque and everything. There was a lot to be proud of.
Still, it was the South. The fault lines were there; as a child I could feel them, always shifting beneath my feet. Growing up brown in North Carolina was no picnic, and with the added complication of being biracial I experienced not just the usual racial animosity, but also considerable racial confusionfrom both blacks and whites. Ethnic ambiguity doesn’t play so well in the South; people need to know what you are so they can decide how to treat you. All those thrumming, intersecting undercurrents of hostility and tribalism meant that even in my liberal bubble, surrounded by Quakers and the sandal-shod professoriat, we couldn’t keep the outside world entirely at bay. I got called “zebra,” “half-breed” and “nigger” not infrequently as a kid (even a few times in college); by junior high I’d learned to deflect, with ninja-like dexterity, intrusive questions about where “my people” were from and why I “talked white.” When I left North Carolina for good at 21 it was with a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth, but truly, despite it all, most of my memories are fond. The South is a beautiful place, with wonderful food, a rich and compelling history, and an abiding quirkiness that will forever endear it to me. But I would never live there again, and what’s happening in NC has forcefully reminded me why.
Look, white conservatives aren’t behaving very well anywhere in America right now, and the resurgence of overt racism triggered by the rise of the Kenyan Usurper is absolutely not confined to the South. But I fear that the reactionary spasms we’ll have to endure as the GOP faces its demographic mortality will be more violent in Southern states, and I also fear the consequences. Because the sense of alienation some white Americans now feel, Southern conservatives feel even more strongly—and they’ve felt it for a much longer time. Am I surprised by the rush of Southern legislatures to, with the blessing of SCOUS, undo decades of progress in minority voting and civic participation? Not in the slightest. But I am and always will be shocked that my former home state, once a great Southern success story, has fallen so far so fast, going from head of the class to last among equals in just a few vertiginous months.