For the first time in what felt like ages, state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said something entirely reasonable. “Children must learn about our state’s racial past and all its ugliness, including the cruelty of slavery to the 1898 Wilmington massacre to Jim Crow,” he allowed. A glimmer of enlightenment? If so, it didn’t last long. Berger would spend the rest of his press conference railing against “critical race theory” and top off his manifesto with a promise to introduce a constitutional amendment banning affirmative action.
Of course, Berger did not frame the amendment that way. In his telling, a referendum modeled directly on other states’ efforts to curtail “racial preferences” is merely a reaffirmation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Color blindness, in other words, is the order of the day. It is true that some civil rights leaders, notably Bayard Rustin, advocated a color-blind vision of American civil rights. But those advocates couched their universalist appeals as part of a broad-ranging program centered on Rustin’s Freedom Budget, a progressive document that bore incredible resemblance to the policy preferences of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, and which would like give Berger an aneurysm.
Instead, Berger seeks to use color blindness as a weapon against newly energized call for racial justice. In the guise of universal equality, he wants to roll back a key tool in the 50-year quest to make the promise of the Civil Rights Movement a reality on the ground. Affirmative Action is not perfect, but it is all we have to correct favoritism for the white majorities that designed our institutions–institutions that, undeniably, have historically excluded people of color. In California, where voters passed a constitutional amendment almost identical to Berger’s, the percentage of Black students at University of California campuses fell to the point where UCLA’s African American population is only 3%. In other words, a constitutional amendment presented as a step toward equality would instead set back the goals of diversity that have at least received lip service from North Carolinians for decades.
Let’s be honest: the constitutional amendment would pass. Even in California, a 2020 effort to reinstate affirmative action was defeated 57% to 42%. Needless to say, North Carolina is not as liberal or, yes, tolerant a place as the Golden State, and it is wracked by age-old racial tensions that the American North and West have only to a lesser degree. I suspect an effort to ban affirmative action in North Carolina would win by at least the 61%-38% by which Amendment 1 passed, banning same-sex marriage. It would have substantive consequences to the detriment of long-suffering people of color and bring yet another round of negative publicity from a press that caters to an American public increasingly committed to diversity and fairness.
Here again Berger is gaslighting the half of North Carolina that disagrees with his hard-line conservative doctrines. Gerrymandering is just what Democrats did. Roy Cooper is power-hungry, etc., says that man who has transformed North Carolina from a budding democracy to a gerrymandered oligarchy steered in a regressive direction by a few powerful legislators. I believe that Berger is a personally decent man who has at least some regard for the American ideal of equality. But his polices, up to and including the anti-affirmative action amendment he is about to propose, have moved us in the direction of inequity almost every single time and they show no sign of letting up.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.