Gene Nichol’s Address to NCSD 2015 Convention

Dr. Gene Nichol
Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor
UNC Law School

North Carolina Senior Democrats Convention
Clemmons, NC  May 2, 2015

Thanks. I’m glad and honored to be here. Among my favorite Democrats , senior ones.   Those who have been in it for the long haul, And those who remain in it for the long haul. Inspiring, wise, hot-blooded, passionate, believing, undaunted Democrats. Those who understand that the Democratic Party is meant to be movement, not a social club. A powerful force for hope and progress, not just a weaker, paler, softer, tamer, more confused version, of our Republican adversaries. The kind of Democrats — I will say — upon which all depends.

Whether North Carolina will be a state with decency, character, with generosity, with optimism. You’ll decide whether we’ll be a democracy-.­ Whether we’ll simply ditch the aspiration of abandon the American promise. I know you think I’m engaging in hyperbole. I’ll admit I’m capable of a little hyperbole on occasion. But in what I just said, I’m deadly serious. Not a hint of exaggeration. So it’s an honor to be with you Sisters and Brothers in arms.

A lot of you, too, I understand, have been treated, of late, to the Republican version of tax breaks – the kind where low & modest income folks have to pay a lot more to the taxman. And then they tell us how stupid we are for not being happy to pay more so the richest among us can pay less. Where ‘trickle down’ apparently means being “trickled on.”

And I suppose I’m required to say this – though it’s become sort of obvious, buut I don’t speak for the University of NC. I’m barely allowed to speak AT the University of NC, much less for it. I’ve discovered, as have many, that love affairs can be one-sided, unrequited. The University I love apparently thinks I’m a pain in the ass. But my affection is, nonetheless undeterred. And I stand ready to report that when it comes to the shameful, unforgivable war on poor people, and people of color, and LGBT people, on the environment, on public education, and women people now being waged by the Governor and General Assembly of NC – the UNC-CH is strictly and fastidiously neutral. It may be that our decency as a people is in the balance, but the University’s happy either way it comes out.

Though I’m not sure that sweeping in from on high and closing a tiny little, privately-funded Poverty Center, is a strict neutrality. But what do I know?

Where to start? Like Lily Tomlin said, no matter how cynical I get, I can’t seem to keep up.

But I’d begin with this tiny piece of perspective. Something this group knows well. These are not normal times. What we face in NC is not the usual give and take, the warp & woof of American politics. We’re in a period of definition, maybe of hoped-for revolution- and I don’t mean the Jeffersonian kind- but instead, where those in secure and unyielding power in NC – controlling forcefully all three branches of state government – and all that attaches to that – seek to remake our state into a lesser and unworthy entity. In heady aspiration to convert NC to Alabama or Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina. They are well underway. And they are winning. In a series of moves that defies our history, our traditions, our constitutions, our religious tenets, and our best aspirations. This tidal wave of suppression and marginalization and enshrinement of privilege has not occurred here in 50, or depending how you look at it, in over 100 years. This is not the way politics usually is, so we live in times of dangerous and defining crisis. I wish it were not so. But it is what it is.

So, to start. A war on People of Color. Our adversaries, as you know hold huge majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. Though our state is 23% African-American, the Republican caucuses of the House and Senate have no black members. None. So when our legislators retire into their caucuses to craft our policies – to repeal the Racial Justice Act, to racially gerrymander our voting districts, to pass voting restrictions largely aimed at African­ Americans, to reject a paid for Medicaid expansion, to demolish unemployment compensation, to limit welfare benefits – no black member rises to address the issues. A white Governor and an all-white cabinet round out the sweep. Some will say this is impolite to mention. Accurate, but impolite. It is just fine for NC to be governed by a white people’s party. It’s just not ok to notice it. It explains, too, why they’re in such a hurry. You won’t be able to govern NC in 20 years          with a white persons party – unless you can completely stop people of color from voting, so they better get while the getting is good.

Second, a stunning, and to me intensely surprising WAR ON WOMEN. And I’m not talking about a culture war or an intellectual war or a philosophical war.   I mean, instead, a war in which our legislature passes a law saying that if a woman in NC seeks an abortion, we’ll enlist her doctor, and her body, in a coerced campaign to intimidate her out of the exercise of her constitutional rights. Forcing her to undergo and pay for a sonogram, without medical benefit or need, against her will, against her doctors will, displaying it in her face, despite her protests, forcing a doctor to mouth Soviet-style legislative script, even if he believes it’s harmful to his to patient. In an astonishing act statism. [I know when I think of what a doctor ought to say to a patient in a time of intense intimacy and trauma, I’m hopeful that the litany will NOT be written by the North Carolina legislature.] And then effectively telling us, like the Virginia legislature, “you ought to consider yourself lucky we didn’t require something to be placed inside a woman’s body to get her attention.” There’s no limit, apparently, when God’s on your side.” And all this by the same people who say it’s too great an interference with individual freedom to be forced to have a health insurance mandate. I’m surprised the words don’t tum to ashes in their mouths. But government by perjury has become their specialty.

Third, there’s the unrelenting WAR ON GAY PEOPLE. They begin, the recent front, with Amendment One – writing a command of discrimination and marginalization and humiliation into the text of our constitution. Paralleling perfectly our earlier constitutional amendment saying black people can’t marry white ones. Exactly the same motivation of supremacy and derision.

Then, when the federal courts and the Supreme Court make it clear that Amendment One is unconstitutional, and can’t be enforced, our legislative leaders literally throw hundreds of thousands of dollars to intervene and appeal in a case that’s already over — all for one single purpose – to prove to their constituents, yet again, how much they despise our gay & lesbian sisters and brothers. And then, in recent weeks, the Senate passes a stunning law that says our government officials don’t have to offer their services to gay people. Gay people have to pay those officials’ salaries, but the employees they pay don’t have to serve them. As our legislative leaders “high five” and hoot and holler, pleased with themselves, saying, ‘see how hateful we can be.’ Aren’t you proud of us?

And finally, this betraying, defining, nation­ leading, evil WAR ON POOR PEOPLE. Rep. Cleveland of Onslow County helps launch it by announcing declares that there is no one in North Carolina actually lives in poverty. As over

22% of all the kids in Cleveland’s own county, Onslow live in wrenching poverty. And 11% of the children is his district living in extreme poverty – on incomes of less than $11,500 for a family of four. Some 400 kids in the Onslow County school district are registered as homeless. Apparently he hasn’t met ’em. We did, at the poverty Center, try to introduce him to some. He wasn’t interested.

I guess that should come as no surprise from a gang led by a Speaker of the House, who is now our US Senator, Thorn Tillis, who said, and I want to be fair, get the words exactly right, Tillis, would say this:

“What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance. We have to show respect for that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice in her condition. And we need to get those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government.”

I always have to stop for a minute and let that sink in. “We need to get cerebral palsy victims to look down on the unemployed and destitute of Carolina. Treat them with appropriate disdain”. Now there’s a high minded view of politics for you. I’m surprised John Kennedy didn’t include it in his inaugural address.

Or like Richard Burr’s claim, on the floor of the Senate a couple years ago, that poor parents, trying to secure Medicaid coverage for their children were “pigs at the trough.” Pigs at the trough. He ought to have been expelled from the Senate.

While more North Carolinians, tonight, in raw numbers, live in poverty than at any moment in our history. 18%. A quarter of our kids. Over 40 % of our children of color. While Greensboro, NC, the federal government tells us, is the hungriest city in America. The very hungriest. Where NC has the 2d highest percentage of hungry children in the US – just a hair behind Louisiana. Where Charlotte NC has the worst income mobility in the country – if you’re born poor in Charlotte, you’re more apt to stay that way than anywhere else. Where the state of NC has seen, over the last decade, the steepest rise in concentrated poverty in the nation.

And our Governor, and our legislators, look these massive sins again equality in the face and work feverishly to make them worse. And then they brag about it Cutting 500,000 poor Tar Heels off of Medicaid, though it means a thousand or more will die every year. Die. Ushering in the largest cut to an unemployment compensation program in American history. Ending the earned income tax credit- so that working families making about $35,000 a year have to pay more to the tax man. Raising the bill for 930,000 poor North Carolinians to pay for a tax cut that goes almost entirely to the richest 2°/o. Even though they already capture more of our income and wealth than has occurred in 100 years.

So we’re in a fight. We could wish that it weren’t so. Or that it wasn’t such a challenging one. That there weren’t such forces of wealth and power and privilege arrayed against it. That it wasn’t such an up-hill, against the odds, effort. That it was easier sledding, more certain of success.

But the apostles of the American democracy have faced tougher roads before. I’m pretty sure Fannie Lou Hamer didn’t do an opinion poll before she started the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And Rosa Parks didn’t conduct a focus group before she sat down for freedom. Cesar Chavez didn’t ask if it would be praised, or lauded, when he launched him famed hunger strike. He said, instead, ‘si, si se pueda.” This is not the first time people of great courage and great heart have been called upon to fight for justice against the odds.

The Democratic Party started over 200 years ago. And it STARTED in a fight. A fight between Jefferson and Hamilton. Jefferson stood strong for the future. Committed to democratic decision-making, citizen participation and humane ideals. Hamilton represented a gaggle of moneyed interests, happy enough to leave the rest of us out.

We face the same choices today. Will we choose to be the heirs of Jefferson? Recognizing both the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship. Because in the end, the obligations of citizens are less like ideas than they are deeply felt emotions, like courage and commitment. And ultimately they’re to be found only within our own hearts.

And I know that some have grown cynical, and given up hope and they don’t believe we can win this daunting battle. But imagine saying that to Harry Truman or Frank Graham or Robert Kennedy or Julius Chambers or Barbara Jordan or Paul Wellstone or Molly Ivins. Or think of saying it to John Lewis. Cynicism has no more place in the Democratic Party than privilege does.

So we ask you, again, even more powerfully, to enroll your spirits, to enlist your hearts. To make this defining cause your own. To enlist your all. To enlist because…

  1. Somewhere we read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all are created equal.”
  2. And somewhere we read, that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
  3. And somewhere we read that “history will judge us on the extent to which we have used our gifts to lighten and enrich the lives of our fellows.”
  4. And somewhere we read, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
  5. And somewhere we read, “we have to believe the things we teach our children”, believe them and make them real.
  6. And somewhere we read that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
  7. And somewhere we read, that “whenever you did these things for the least of these, you did them for me.”
  8. And somewhere we read, “You reap what you sew.”
  9. And somewhere we read that the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of happiness can be as one. They march not in opposite directions, but hand in hand.
  10. And somewhere we read, “no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor and Director of the poverty center at the University of North Carolina. From 2005-2008, he was president of the College of William and Mary. Nichol was Burton Craige professor and dean of the law school at UNC (1999-2005); law dean at the University of Colorado (1988-1995); and Cutler professor and director of the William & Mary Bill of Rights Institute (1985-1988).