The Ugly Climate in North Carolina

By Michael McDunnah March 24, 2016
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory

My wife and I live in Chicago, and—as much as we love the city—we inevitably have at least one conversation every winter about moving somewhere warmer. In the dead, grey expanse of January and February, it’s tempting to fantasize about escaping the sub-zero temperatures, avoiding the treacherous snow and ice, and possibly seeing sunlight sometime before April.

North Carolina is a state we often talk about. It’s a beautiful place, and we have close friends there, and the weather is much nicer. (As I write this, it’s 37 degrees in Chicago. In Raleigh, N.C., it’s 78.)

But here’s the problem: we also care about social justice. We care about racial equality. We care about voting rights. And, as much as we love our friends in N.C., we also have friends and family members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and we care about them too.

All of which, you see, makes North Carolina a problem.

Yesterday, North Carolina Republicans pushed a bill through the state legislature that essentially legalizes discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. Avoiding the inevitable backlash that would have come if they’d moved more slowly, the N.C. General Assembly hurried to accomplish a great deal in just 12 hours. They called members back for a special session, held so-called “hearings” on a bill the lawmakers themselves barely had time to read before they voted on it, and persuaded the governor to sign it.

And, just like that, North Carolina legalized homophobic and transphobic discrimination.

Sold as a response to (hysterical, ridiculous, and wholly unjustified) fears about which bathrooms transgender people might use, HB2 shares a lot of legislative DNA with a discrimination bill recently signed into law in Indiana, and another that awaits the governor’s signature in Georgia. But North Carolina’s hurriedly enacted law is actually far, far worse. Where Indiana and Georgia framed their hateful bills as “religious exemption” laws, North Carolina’s doesn’t even bother to mention religious beliefs. It simply strips legal protections for LGBTQ+ people across the state, and prohibits local governments from extending anti-discrimination protections based on any categories other than “race, religion, color, national origin, or sex.”

The law is more than a shameful and unconscionable attack on LGBTQ+ communities—though it is certainly that. The law also prohibits ordinances designed to extend legal protections to other groups, like veterans, and people with disabilities. It prevents counties and municipalities from passing higher minimum wage laws, or stricter labor laws, than those enacted at the state level. Essentially, it’s a moral power grab by the Republican-controlled state legislators, ensuring that their bigoted values and narrow views legally supersede any more progressive North Carolina governments.

This is not the way democracy is supposed to work. But it’s been several years now since anything in North Carolina’s version of democracy worked the way it’s supposed to work. In 2013, the legislature—newly liberated by the Supreme Court from any fear of the Voting Rights Act—passed one of the worst voter suppression laws in the nation. Eliminating same-day registration, shortening early voting, scrapping preregistration of high-school students, and establishing voter ID provisions, that law was seemingly designed to curtail democratic participation by young people, poor people, and voters of color. (This law is currently being challenged in the courts by voting rights groups.)

And it gets worse. Project Vote is currently fighting a lawsuit against the state for widespread violations of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Widely known as the “motor voter” law, the NVRA requires state government agencies—including DMVs and public assistance offices—to proactively offer voter registration services to clients. This law was intended to ensure that state governments take the lead in registering their eligible citizens to vote, and included requirements particularly designed to reach disenfranchised Americans, low-income Americans, and persons with disabilities. But—based on their shoddy performance and their blatant disregard for the NVRA’s requirements—North Carolina’s current leadership doesn’t seem to think it needs to comply with that law either.

Under Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-controlled legislature, it has become clear that North Carolina’s state government considers itself a law unto itself. It feels free to disregard civil rights laws established by the U.S. Congress, and it feels empowered to dictate what civil rights laws local and municipal governments can pass. It wants to maintain a stranglehold on policy, in which no values matter but its own.

It has also become clear to us—and never clearer than today—that the values this government wants to impose are not ours. They are based on bigotry, discrimination, and a vested interest in inequality.

There are a lot of different ways for a state to be unwelcoming. As it turns out, my wife and I won’t be moving to North Carolina, and we won’t be visiting anytime soon.

In the end, the climate there is far too cold for us.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Project Vote.