At many levels, Americans are confronting issues of race relations and racial justice with an intensity that echoes the climax of the civil rights movement five decades ago – as well as the violent urban protests that signaled black citizens’ impatience with the pace of progress.
Martin Luther King’s 1968 martyrdom was a big reason why that impatience boiled over. Barack Obama’s presidency finally seemed to show progress that wouldn’t or couldn’t be eroded. But then along came Donald Trump, who can’t manage to utter a discouraging word about white supremacists and stick by what he says through the next news cycle.
Now, we argue over the right of professional athletes to make a symbolic protest against what looks to many like racism ingrained in police departments whose members have brutalized African-Americans. Trump criticizes as unpatriotic some players’ gesture of kneeling during pregame renditions of the National Anthem – using profanity to channel his contempt. The players, many of them black, insist that their exercise of free speech is indeed profoundly patriotic.
North Carolina meanwhile emerges as an arena in the sharpening debate over memorials saluting those who fought to uphold the doomed Confederacy, befouled as it was by its embrace of slavery. Many are the folks who understandably fail to appreciate statues honoring soldiers who waged war so that African-Americans could be bought and sold.
Trump’s ascension represents in many ways the bitter fruit of his Republican Party’s efforts to seize and hold power by whatever means necessary, including not-so-subtle appeals to race resentment among susceptible whites and measures aimed at diluting black strength at the ballot box.
North Carolina’s Republican leaders have gone down that sorry road fishtailing and raising dust. Their efforts to suppress black votes and to rig elections through racially gerrymandered districts have been ruled unconstitutional by federal judges. But their budgets – dialing back expenditures while cutting taxes in ways that chiefly benefit high-end earners – have taken a toll on programs and services important to the economically less fortunate, many of whom happen to be minorities.
Big men on campus
Amidst all that, the Republican-controlled General Assembly has moved to put a conservative, partisan stamp on the institution that, likely more than any other, has been a springboard for the state’s prosperity, as unequally distributed as that prosperity is.
That institution is the University of North Carolina system – 16 public campuses including two major research universities that have been among our proudest and most effective public assets.
The legislature fills coveted seats on the system’s Board of Governors in elections infused with partisan politics, to the point where Democrats on the board now are virtually extinct.
And the strain of Republicans chosen for the board has veered toward the extreme, from outspoken former legislators to a former state party chairman, ex-Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, who openly avows his role as a boat-rocker. Then there are members such as Raleigh attorney Steve Long, who has served on the board of the Civitas Institute, a think tank describing itself as “North Carolina’s Conservative Voice.”
A shared view seems to be that elements of the UNC system – especially at UNC-Chapel Hill – have become the redoubts of a self-satisfied and self-serving liberal elite that can’t or won’t carry out its teaching and research missions so as to properly boost the state’s economy.
The Nichol factor
Professor Gene Nichol, in the course of his work as head of the UNC law school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, championed a different perspective. He ripped the legislature for policies he persuasively argued were worsening the plight of the poor.
That didn’t go over well among the legislative chiefs. The word must have been passed to their appointees on the Board of Governors – do what you can to shut this guy up. So in 2015, the poverty center found itself abolished.
Nichol, however, wasn’t about to be silenced. From his tenured faculty post, he has continued to highlight the magnitude of the state’s poverty dilemma and to criticize those whom he believes aren’t doing enough to combat it. So it was hardly surprising when the board, urged on by the aforementioned Long, turned its sights to another Nichol-linked entity at UNC Law – its Center for Civil Rights.
As the school’s dean, Nichol had recruited the noted civil rights attorney Julius Chambers to direct the center when it was created in 2001. Chambers held the post until his retirement in 2010. The center has operated essentially as a public interest law firm within the law school, taking cases where civil rights were at risk and giving students’ first-hand exposure to that important kind of work.
The center became a thorn in the side for those whose actions and policies it challenged. Some of those indeed were public officials – such as the Halifax County commissioners, who support three different public school systems that give a modern-day twist to the notion of separate and unequal. My former newspaper colleague Ted Vaden has written extensively (here’s a recent piece) about the Halifax mess, which has consigned many children of impoverished African-American families to underfunded schools while kids in the mostly white Roanoke Rapids district have benefited from favored treatment.
No suits for you
The question before the Board of Governors came down to this: Would the Center for Civil Rights be allowed to continue its advocacy work to the point of actually filing lawsuits? Of course, lawyers seldom want to litigate if a less contentious path to resolving the dispute can be found. And sometimes, a lawsuit prompts a resolution short of a showdown in court when a complaint is settled to the plaintiff’s satisfaction.
For all that, the ability to use standard legal levers – the levers any aggrieved party is entitled to use, assuming it can access them – is a critically important tool in the pursuit of justice. It was clear that by seeking to deprive the civil rights center of that ability, its critics wanted to defang, declaw and neuter it into irrelevance.
Which is just what they did. A board committee following Long’s lead presaged the outcome with a vote recommending that the center be stripped of its litigation prerogative. Then on Sept. 8 the full board brought the hammer down.
One argument gaining traction was that as a public entity, the center shouldn’t be taking other public entities to court.
But consider that the center has not been funded with public money. And its courtroom work is a logical outgrowth of its educational role – just as a medical school’s assignment of students to places where they observe and perhaps join in the treatment of patients is seen as a valuable part of their training.
The fact is, the civil rights center made Republican legislators and their allies squirm. Perhaps they were responding to local officials who resented being sued by a group perceived as Chapel Hill meddlers. Perhaps they were responding to corporate types targeted by the center for practices that weigh heavily on minorities (for example, expansion of a polluting industry in a historically black community).
In any case, a Board of Governors that took seriously the constitutional premise that citizens are entitled to equal treatment under the law would not have gone looking for excuses to bar the civil rights center from taking complaints to court.
It would have encouraged an organization that gave law students a taste of genuine public interest work. It would have celebrated an organization whose work has been totally in keeping with ideals of equal opportunity and equal protection and that has helped affirm North Carolina’s commitment to those ideals.
The state’s Republican regime had the power to render the center toothless. But by exercising that power it has sided with those who view the concerns of our underprivileged citizens as trivial – another betrayal of our responsibilities to each other.