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Across the nation, white supremacists are growing bolder while our president expresses his approval. Though we have good reason to fear the Proud Boys and other modern-day incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan, we should not focus only on these militant and sometimes heavily armed fringe groups.
In the United States, after all, white supremacy is, and always has been, mainstream.
Take the case of our home state, North Carolina.
The state has a long, ugly history of white elites using racist appeals to restrict political participation, undermine democratic governance, and promote the private hoarding of wealth and opportunity.
In 1898, for example, self-avowed white supremacists (at that time, they were members of the Democratic Party) attacked the accomplishments of a Fusion alliance of Black Republicans and white Populists that had won control of North Carolina’s state government and created the freest political system in the South. Fusion legislators had liberalized election law, expanded investment in education and public welfare, and shifted the burden of taxation from individuals to corporations.
Democrats wrested back control of state government by waging a relentless campaign of fearmongering in the press and by organizing vigilantes to intimidate voters on Election Day. Declaring that North Carolina “is a white man’s country, and white men must control and govern it,” they charged Republicans and Populists with enabling “negro domination.” In Wilmington, a white militia led by the city’s “best men” staged a coup d’état, marauding through Black neighborhoods, killing wantonly, and driving the city’s biracial board of aldermen from office.
With victory in hand, Democrats disenfranchised Black men and established a regime of law and custom that became known as Jim Crow. That regime was both an expression of white racism and a system of power that concentrated wealth in the hands of the few and privileged private interests over the common good. For much of the twentieth century, Jim Crow visited horrors upon Black people and impoverished vast numbers of whites as well.
History seldom repeats itself, but it does rhyme. In 2013, a conservative majority in North Carolina’s General Assembly – now traveling under the Republican Party’s banner – attempted to reverse decades of reform that had begun with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and had dramatically increased minority political participation. Republicans passed House Bill 589, which curtailed early voting, eliminated same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting, and imposed a voter photo ID requirement.
After a lengthy legal battle, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out House Bill 589, declaring that “because of race” North Carolina lawmakers had imposed strict new limitations on the right to vote. That was only half right. HB 589 surely bore the mark of racial animus, but Republicans did not seek to disenfranchise Black and Latinx voters simply because of their skin color. Suppression of the minority vote was also the keystone in a broader conservative agenda.
The legislators who restricted voting rights also rejected federal funds to expand Medicaid to more than 460,000 uninsured North Carolinians, eliminated the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, cut spending on public education, and made the state’s unemployment benefits some of the stingiest in the nation.
North Carolina’s Republicans knew that little of their agenda was likely to survive free and fair elections. History taught that when minority citizens had been able to build alliances with progressive whites and had gained easier access to the ballot box, they had voted to demand equal citizenship, civil rights, and economic justice – not solely to advance their own interests, but to make government responsive to the needs of all its people.
President Trump and Republicans in Congress understand this, too.
That is why they are raising a rallying cry against mail-in ballots, stoking racial fears, and encouraging supporters to form a volunteer army of poll watchers in key battleground states. Behind all of the talk about voter fraud, their real worry is that on Election Day a majority of voters will cast their ballots for a more democratic America – an America that offers every citizen a living wage, educational opportunities, and access to affordable housing and health care.
The question before us on November 3 is clear: Will we vote to pursue our nation’s democratic promise, or satisfy ourselves with continuing to live in the shadow of Jim Crow, with its heritage of voter suppression and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few?
It is up to us to choose.
James Leloudis, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Robert Korstad, professor emeritus of public policy and history at Duke University, are co-authors of Fragile Democracy: The Struggle Over Race and Voting Rights in North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).