N.C. Racial Justice Act Vote Threatens State's Progressive Streak

North Carolina's reputation as one of the most forward-looking states in the South suffered another blow this week. Over the course of several days, extremist members of the state House and Senate voted to vastly scale back the ground-breaking Racial Justice Act, and then voted against reparations for North Carolina's ugly eugenics program. These votes follow a trend of exclusionary and backwards-looking policy measures that threaten to move the Tar Heel State backwards.

The Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, allows death row inmates to challenge their death sentence if they can prove evidence of racial bias in sentencing. Yesterday, the state Senate joined the House in passing a bill that would make it significantly more difficult for defendants to prove racial bias, essentially undermining the intent of the act. The move is a backhanded attempt to bypass Governor Beverly Perdue's veto of a repeal effort last year.

We cannot ignore the systemic racism in the application of the death penalty in North Carolina. When the Racial Justice Act was passed, a full 60 percent of North Carolina's death row inmates were black. Over the past several years, seven death row or life-sentence inmates were exonerated in the state -- five of whom were black. Finally, the law passed a constitutional challenge in Forsyth County Superior Court. Yet the legislature disregarded this evidence and the wishes of the broad NAACP-led coalition that supports the law.

The state Senate has also blocked an amendment to create an $11 million fund to compensate victims of North Carolina's state-mandated eugenics program. From 1947 to 1974, the state sterilized thousands of women -- often African American -- who were deemed too poor, too promiscuous or mentally unstable. Despite repeated promises to compensate these elderly, barren women, Senate leaders last week used a parliamentary maneuver to block a vote on the matter.

These votes are an unwelcome development in North Carolina. Over the past few years, North Carolina has been admired as a progressive leader in the South -- one of the reasons that many national organizations have chosen to hold conventions in the state. By passing the Racial Justice Act and debating reparations, North Carolina's leaders demonstrated a respect for its diverse citizenry and a willingness to tackle tough racial justice decisions that many other states choose to ignore.

But extremist legislators have made a concerted effort to sully this progressive reputation. Last year, the legislature cut thousands of teacher and teacher assistant jobs and decimated the state's nationally recognized More at Four preschool program for low-income children. In an NAACP-supported lawsuit, a conservative judge found that these cuts violated the state constitution's mandate that North Carolina provide a sound, basic education for all children.

Other bills to privatize public education, introduce school vouchers and dramatically expand charter schools are part of an effort to transfer schools from centers of learning to centers of corporate profit. And after passing one of the most restrictive voter suppression laws in the country, the legislature froze $4 million dollars from the federal Help America Vote Act, also known as HAVA, that would be used to help our elections run smoothly by training poll workers, upgrading voting equipment and increasing accessibility for people with disabilities.

This regressive agenda disregards and actively disrespects large swaths of the state. It is bad for the 32 percent of North Carolinians who are racial and ethnic minorities. It is bad for the 15.5 percent of the population who live under the poverty line. And it is also bad for the state's reputation. In the past few months, a number of corporations and organizations have expressed doubt about doing business in North Carolina.

If our representatives want North Carolina to prosper in the coming decades, they need to stop attacking communities of color, low-income communities and others who disagree with them. Otherwise they will drag North Carolina backwards in history.

By Benjamin Todd Jealous and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Benjamin Todd Jealous and the Rev. Dr. William Barber II.