UNC Charlotte's Karen Cox asks: What’s the Matter With North Carolina?

Historians in the News
tags: politics, North Carolina, Pat McCrory, Roy Cooper

Karen L. Cox is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author of the forthcoming book “Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South.”

Charlotte, N.C. — In recent days, folks from outside North Carolina have been asking me what, exactly, is wrong with my state. After a vicious governor’s race in which the Democrat, Roy Cooper, squeaked past the incumbent Republican, Pat McCrory, the state General Assembly drew up and passed a series of bills that greatly restrict the power of our incoming chief executive — bills that Mr. McCrory has signed.

This is only the latest in a series of fierce political fights in our state. Earlier this year, it was around H.B. 2, the so-called bathroom bill; before that, it was over efforts by state Republicans to restrict voting rights. All of this in a state long regarded as a paragon of Southern moderation.

But rather than being an outlier, North Carolina is the distillation of nationwide trends. Our cities are solidly blue, while our rural regions, which thanks to gerrymandering have an outsize power, are reactionary red, and their representatives are bent on breaking every rule to keep a hold on power.

It wasn’t always this way.

My family and I moved to Greensboro in 1974. It was here where my fascination with politics took root. I participated in mock elections at school, and at age 17, was chosen to be a page for the Democratic governor, James B. Hunt Jr. Even then, I could tell that people on both sides were working toward the same goal, and respected each other for it.

But the state’s political divisions were soon laid bare. In 1984, our state was embroiled in one of the most divisive campaigns for the United States Senate that North Carolinians had ever witnessed, in a battle that pitted Governor Hunt against the incumbent Republican, Jesse Helms. Its brutality shocked the nation and even international observers. Then in 1990, when Helms faced Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte and an African-American, those divisions hardened. The Helms campaign produced the infamous “Hands” ad, which showed a pair of white hands crumpling a job application, a not so subtly racist message about affirmative action “quotas.”

Those elections may have been the beginning of the end of political civility in North Carolina, but they also heralded a new type of electoral politics nationally, one that focused on tearing down one’s opponent in order to win.

Read entire article at NYT

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