A Different Kind of Step Back —by Jinny Batterson
Since the spring of 2013, groups of North Carolina citizens have been gathering during legislative sessions to protest some of the actions of a heavily gerrymandered state legislature elected in the wake of partisan redistricting after the 2010 U.S. census. The “Forward Together” movement, a broad consortium of citizen activists drawn from over 80 different organizations, has sponsored the protests. I’ve participated in some of them. I’ve grown accustomed to a frequent chant as we loft our protest signs: “Forward Together, Not One Step Back.” Although I’m in solidarity with the movement’s goals and demands, my life experience cautions me against the expectation that there will not at times be backward steps—our current North Carolina legislature’s record is ample proof of that.
Recently, I’ve done some remedial study of the history of my adopted state, having missed out on this state’s history during my public schooling elsewhere. I chanced upon a North Carolina history by noted area historian William S. Powell. Some of his descriptions of the traumas that North Carolina experienced in the first half of the nineteenth century resonated:
“Between 1815 and 1850 the state was drained of one-third of its population. … The 1850 census, the first to give figures on interstate migration, revealed … that 31 percent of all the natives of North Carolina then living in the United States were living in other states than North Carolina. Because of her indifference to education, neglect of natural resources, reluctance to levy taxes for any public service, and general backwardness, the state had driven away 405,161 people, of whom two-thirds were white.” (Powell, William S.; North Carolina: A History; 1977; Nashville, Tennessee; The American Association for State and Local History.)
Reverend William J. Barber II, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and a highly visible presence at many “Forward Together” rallies, emphasizes a different period of North Carolina history. He reminds us of that portion of the late 19th century when a coalition of blacks and whites pushed through a progressive agenda for the state during a period of “fusion politics.” Before it was partially derailed by violence, voter suppression, and race-baiting politics, this fusion coalition passed legislation to improve public education, enhance infrastructure, and provide rudimentary social safety nets for the disadvantaged. Barber counsels that this sort of fusion politics can be resurrected in current times. The coalition of which he is part is doing its best to stay coalesced and to move forward toward social and environmental justice.
A different agenda seems to have temporarily taken over our legislature. Its main tenet seems to be that lowering taxes on corporations and the wealthy will all by itself fuel economic growth and improve people’s lives. A corollary is that technological progress will all by itself alleviate any social or environmental problems we currently face. Economic theory and technological advances can be arcane areas of study. It can be easy to get lost in the jargon. That may be why we’ve partially abdicated our rights and responsibilities as citizens to the notions that “economic growth” and “technological progress” are universal panaceas. We cannot and should not stop the many advances that have enhanced human and planetary life, but we would be wise to question the notion that all such “advances” are worthwhile.
So I think we need to take the kind of “step back” that gives us a chance to view the bigger picture, to see not just economic growth and technological advance, but also human dignity, equitable distribution of wealth, adequate provision for the young, the elderly, the disadvantaged, concern for the natural world that envelopes us. Perhaps we can bend the ears of our legislators to encourage them to do the same. Then we will all be better equipped to go forward together.