I grew up in Durham, North Carolina in the 1970s. Racism – the Jim Crow kind – was still there in pockets, but it seemed to be receding; or at least it was being replaced by the less overt, white-flight variety. I left home for college in the 1980s and watched from a distance as North Carolina continued to struggle to extricate itself from its legacy of racism.
The death penalty is one of the ugliest vestiges of that ugly legacy, but North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006. There were no death sentences in 2012. A poll earlier this year showed that majorities of North Carolinians support replacing the death penalty with life without parole.
In 2009, when the state passed the historic “Racial Justice Act” - a law that forthrightly acknowledged the history of racism in the state’s judicial system and allowed death row inmates to more easily make claims based on allegations of racial bias – I felt genuine pride in my home state.
Acknowledging the seamier side of your history is not easy, and the Racial Justice Act was a courageous attempt to begin to right past wrongs and correct injustices.
It isn’t going to last.
The new North Carolina legislature and its new Governor, elected in 2010 and 2012, have lots of plans for my home state. Suppressing legal challenges based on racial bias and restarting executions are high on the list. The state legislature has repealed the Racial Justice Act, a repeal which will soon be signed into law.
Evidence of racial bias infecting the state’s courts – and the cases heard under the Racial Justice Act exposed plenty of evidence – will now be ignored. North Carolina’s problems with racism in criminal justice will no longer be acknowledged; they will be swept under the rug. Some folks will pretend that such racism no longer exists.
But it does.
History in a place like North Carolina is like gravity; it’s a powerful force that’s hard to pull away from. After years of struggling to get beyond their past, North Carolinians are now seeing an example of their state sinking back into it.