Columns

Kumar ’17: Notes from North Carolina

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

In my last column (“Don’t dismiss the South,” March 17), I pushed back against “the traditional narrative of an enlightened, prosperous North and a backwards, poverty-stricken South,” going so far as to characterize the latter as “a multicultural region that, though often mired in the weight of its past, also enjoys an enormous capacity for progress and modernity.” Less than a week later, on March 23, the Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory demonstrated just how heavy that past is in passing the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, more commonly referred to as House Bill 2 or just HB2. The law requires people in North Carolina to use public restrooms according to the gender on their birth certificates, prohibits any local minimum wage above the state minimum ($7.25) and prevents local governments from legislating anti-discrimination measures on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

With the rapid passage and signing of HB2, North Carolina became the latest battleground in a culture war that seemed to have fizzled out after the Supreme Court’s June ruling in favor of marriage equality. The law was signed on the same day that it was introduced, and Democrats walked out of the Senate rather than casting futile votes so as not to be associated with the bill. In the days and weeks since, the typically Carolina blue skies have been clouded by a political firestorm: North Carolina Attorney General (and Democratic nominee for Governor) Roy Cooper announced that he would not defend the “unconstitutional” law in court; scores of businesses — including Apple, American Airlines and Charlotte-based Bank of America — have spoken out against the law; the Obama administration warned that North Carolina may lose federal funding for education and infrastructure. Bruce Springsteen’s announcement that he was canceling his concert in Greensboro garnered an article in the French newspaper of record, Le Monde, confirming the international reach of the shockwave generated by HB2.

As a longtime resident of Charlotte, the law hits particularly close to home. HB2 is a direct response to a non-discrimination ordinance passed by the Charlotte City Council in February concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. That ordinance, which should have been a no-brainer given that Charlotte was one of only three of the country’s 20 largest cities without such protections, was the result of a year-long struggle. In March 2015, a similar measure failed to pass because of public concern about the stipulation allowing trans people to use the restroom corresponding to their gender identities — the same ill-informed, fear-driven concern that has rallied many North Carolinians around HB2. After signing the state bill into law, McCrory outrageously accused Charlotte’s mayor and city council of “government overreach and intrusion” and told city officials “to get back to working on the issues most important to our citizens.” This statement is ironic not only because the state government’s actions amount to nothing short of overreach and intrusion, but also because McCrory was himself mayor of Charlotte for 14 years.

There is no doubt that HB2 altered my perception of my home state. A friendly (well, perhaps not so friendly) rivalry between the two Carolinas has led me to become indignant should anyone ever suggest that I am from South Carolina — North Carolinians typically think of our state as superior in every regard. But now I feel much more reluctant to defend the honor of North Carolina; after all, it was the lower Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, who recently said that a proposed “bathroom bill” similar to HB2 isn’t “necessary” and that “South Carolina is doing really well when it comes to respect and when it comes to kindness and when it comes to acceptance.” I am saddened that North Carolina and its elected representatives are not doing so well when it comes to respect, kindness and acceptance.

The problem isn’t limited to North Carolina, though: A string of legislation with the same hue of intolerance has popped up across the South. April 4, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that would allow for discrimination against the LGBTQ community under the guise of religious liberty. April 5, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a similar bill into law, and April 6 the Tennessee state legislature passed its own religious liberty bill. Among my friends in Charlotte, there is a strong sense of helplessness in the face of a Republican state government that seems only to be working for certain North Carolinians in forgetting the importance of protecting minority rights in spite of majority rule. I imagine that such a sentiment is being felt in many pockets of the South.

In light of this latest onslaught of attacks against civil liberties, it is tempting to grow discouraged and take back all of the positive things I said about the South in my last column. But to do so would be to fall into the same trap of myth and generalization that has tarnished my home region in the eyes of many. An opinion poll found that 51 percent of North Carolinians support the bathroom component of HB2, which means that the state is roughly divided on the matter. Indeed, far from representing a coherent block of intolerance, many prominent (Democratic) politicians and business leaders are throwing their weight behind the fight to repeal the law. And the tide seems to be distinctly against McCrory and the Republican leaders in Raleigh: Each day more companies and conventions announce that they will not do business in North Carolina, and a lawsuit challenging HB2 is working its way through the courts. It seems impossible that the state leadership will not ultimately buckle to such intense economic and political pressure. But until it does, I can only hope that the “vibrancy and optimism” that I see in the South will one day be visible to the rest of the country and the world.

Nikhil Kumar ’17 likes his freedom in choosing bathrooms and can be reached at nikhil_kumar@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.