North Carolina: Seeming Rather than Being

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GREG JARRELL  |  APRIL 6, 2016

Jarrell_Greg_Web-150x150I like calling North Carolina home. It has always been home for me, and I have all of my North Carolina native bona fides to prove it. State bird: cardinal. State shell: Scotch bonnet. State tree: longleaf pine. State mammal: gray squirrel. State flower: Dogwood. I can go on for a while without the need to consult Google.

Growing up here, we were taught that our state’s history is a bit different than our neighbors. We could romantically see ourselves as common people working to create what we thought might be the best state in the union. We were “a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit,” referring to our neighbors — elitist Virginia and aristocratic South Carolina. Our people created a “hornet’s nest of rebellion” prior to the American Revolution. We declared independence in May 1775, as our flag proudly proclaims, more than a year before the rest of the country did in July 1776. We were called Tar Heels because when the British showed up to fight, our people dug their heels in and refused to give ground. We learned to be humble, but to fiercely defend our turf against anyone who would threaten it. Our cry of resistance: “I am Tar Heel born and a Tar Heel bred, and when I die I’ll be Tar Heel dead.”

We are stubborn in North Carolina but not stupid. We know that we have not always lived up to our standards. That is an understatement. Enslavement was legal in our state. That is a sin for which we have never atoned. We destroyed native populations, the Roanoke, the Cherokee, and the Catawba among them, and we have never made amends. Jim Crow found an easy home here. We had plenty of “sundown towns,” with signs at the town limits to proclaim that Black people should not be found there at night. The brutal attack on a multi-racial town government in Wilmington in 1898 is part of our story. But we are also home to the Greensboro sit-ins. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was born at Shaw University in Raleigh. We were a bit slow at times — this is the state that kept electing Jesse Helms, after all — but we were determined to live into our highest ideals. We summed this up in our motto: Esse Quam Videri. To be rather than to seem. “Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,” our state song says. This is what we aspire to be. And in North Carolina, we take pride in actually being that, not in just giving the appearance of it.

Somewhere along the way, we have lost that ideal. We can no longer defend the idea that the weak grow strong here. Not when our largest city, Charlotte, ranks last in the nation for economic mobility for its poorest residents. Not when our drinking water is being poisoned by fellow citizens who run our power company. Not when our children go to schools that are quickly returning to being both separate and unequal.

Nor can we claim that the strong grow great. Today, the strong go to Raleigh to bully the weak. This was on display in a recent special session of our state legislature, used to rush through one of the most extreme laws in the country. House Bill 2 uses the smokescreen of a “bathroom bill” in order to eliminate state courts as a recourse for discrimination claims of any kind — of any kind, not just sexual orientation and gender identity, but also including race, gender, age, and disability. The bill carefully and with intention leaves out LGBT neighbors as a protected class in any other anti-discrimination legislation, and bars localities from creating anti-discrimination codes of their own. And then, as an added measure because this bill was never about bathrooms to begin with, it voids the authority of cities, towns and counties to set employment standards for contractors that they hire. This is now perhaps the most extreme example in a long litany of the ways the power brokers in the legislative and executive branches of the state government have sought to use their power against their neighbors since the GOP majority took office in 2010.

I called North Carolina Senate President Pro-Tempore Phil Berger’s office to express my concern about this. His assistant told me that Mr. Berger was acting to protect our children. She does not believe that, though, and neither does her boss. I told her that, real nicely. “Do you not care about our women and children?” she asked me, as though she did not know that this was the question asked to justify every lynching that ever stained the soil of this country. If care for our children was a motivator, then Berger wouldn’t sleep again until he convinced his colleagues to act with all deliberate speed to fix our schools and pay our teachers what they deserve. If the General Assembly’s concern was for the young people of our state, especially for the weak ones trying to grow great, they would expand Medicaid so that families are not going broke paying for basic health care.

What we face in Raleigh is a regime that has failed our most basic belief about ourselves as North Carolinians — that we would rather be than to seem. We aspire here to live under the premise that it is better to be free than to live with the illusion of freedom; better to be compassionate rather than to just try to seem that way; better to strive for our ideals rather than to let some folks drunk on power turn them on their heads.

We are witnessing a political power that inverts our core ideal. Our leaders appeal to the vulnerability of children while at the same time actively seeking to make our children more vulnerable. With that in mind, and until we are able to purchase the whole lot of them new house boats on one of our famous hog waste lagoons, where they can float about and enjoy a cold glass of locally sourced coal ash, which they insist is non-toxic, it is time for a new state motto. North Carolina: Videri Quam Esse. To seem rather than to be.