Here’s something I believe that most people don’t: North Carolina is one of the most important, and certainly interesting, places in America right now.
There are certain stories and trends that the national media routinely misses because it’s so hyperfocused on what’s happening in the big coastal metros. This isn’t an “elite mainstream media” criticism – it’s just a function of where their readership is concentrated and where most of their reporters and correspondents are based. North Carolina’s evolution is one of these stories.
North Carolina has now sustained for many years one of the country’s fastest economic and population growth rates. Job growth is high, and like a lot of places, unemployment is today at a 16-year low. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida are growing faster than anywhere East of Texas right now. In fact, throughout the East, the arc from Raleigh to Atlanta is the biggest major growth story happening. The northeast is stagnant or emptying out, the Rust Belt is hollowing, and those big western states seeing lots of growth, like Utah, Nevada and Idaho, are starting from a much smaller base. If NC, SC and GA were one state, it’d be the California of the East, and it would be growing faster than the real one.
You may have heard about how the Old North State is sort of a mess, politically speaking, right now. I’ll get to that here in a second, but for now, the important thing to remember is this: the North Carolina General Assembly as seated today does not reflect the will of the electorate. The General Assembly is currently deeply skewed by a partisan and racial gerrymander compounded by deliberate legislative action designed explicitly to disenfranchise poor and minority voters and over-represent rural whites. What’s more, these are all fairly recent developments, not legacy stuff. Here’s how it went down:
- 2010: Republicans win control of both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly for the first time in a century
- 2011: Following the 2010 Census, Republicans submit a major redistricting plan for the General Assembly that was widely recognized as an obvious gerrymander.
- 2013: Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby vs. Holder, in which major sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were invalidated, the Republican-held General Assembly passed a long raft of new voting restrictions
- 2014: While legal action was pending against these changes, they went into immediate effect and were in place for Congressional and statewide elections
- 2016: The Fourth Circuit appellate court struck down these provisions, noting that they deliberately “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” North Carolina’s Republican leadership immediately appeals to the Supreme Court, asking for an emergency stay to keep the restrictions in place for the 2016 elections. SCOTUS refuses. Nevertheless, Republicans enact other measures to greatly reduce voting options in areas with large black populations
- The “bathroom bill” thing happens, becomes a national story. Everyone looks at North Carolina and says, “dang, how did those clowns get elected?” Welp: 👆🏻
- Democratic challenger Roy Cooper defeats incumbent Pat McCrory in the gubernatorial race. After a long, embarrassing spectacle involving accusations of voter fraud, McCrory eventually concedes. The Republican legislature immediately passes a range of extraordinary new measures curtailing the power of the governor
That brings us to today.
What is harder to compress into a timeline like this is the gathering opposition to this form of misrule. North Carolina is very diverse state with large, thriving and progressive urban centers. Yes, there were Trump rallies in Kannapolis, but Obama drew tens of thousands in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Greensboro. Importantly, since 2013 we’ve also seen a resurgence of opposition, led in part by black church leaders like Reverend William Barber, who has led the “Moral Monday” protests. These are not trivial movements. Reverend Barber in particular was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention.
If you’ve never been to North Carolina, you may imagine Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Charlotte as some stereotype of sleepy, boring, conservative southern cities. I assure you, they are not. There is a cultural and political renaissance happening in each one of these cities that is amazing to witness, and hard to really encapsulate unless you go there. Durham now has one of the best-performing theater venues in the country by attendance and sales. (Seriously, DPAC is amazing.) Raleigh is likely to get a new MLS team soon. Throw a rock in any of these cities, and you will hit 20 new craft breweries. Charlotte is the biggest financial services center in the country after New York, and is adding jobs in that sector much faster. The “foodie” hype cycle has come and gone, with North Carolina (primarily the Triangle) firmly established as a major food destination. (Barbecue is big, in case you haven’t heard.) Asheville is a little like a Santa Cruz dropped in the middle of the Blue Ridge mountains, but with better food and hiking and lower prices. And, of course, don’t forget the UNC system, whose network of public universities across the state have few rivals in quality.
Moreover, compared to places like California and New York, North Carolina offers giant advantages in sheer quality of life. The 9-5 workday is firmly entrenched in most places, and the cost of living is substantially lower. The average two-bedroom apartment in Raleigh or Charlotte rents for around $1250. New housing developments are booming throughout the “Triangle” (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill), the “Triad” (Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point) and Charlotte, and the housing market is brisk. People complain constantly in Raleigh about long commutes of 30 minutes. I haven’t mentioned the big tech scene down south, because that’s not what this is about. We have big tech hubs too – Raleigh/Durham in particular – but if you’re the type of person for whom that is a decisive factor for where you live, then you’re going to Silicon Valley, and that’s it. Enjoy the cost of living and the 101.
Culturally, North Cackalack is in the midst of a transition from conservative southern state to… something else that no one has yet defined, really. There is a small controversy in some quarters about what to call southern states that definitely identify as “southern,” but no longer with the racial and political attitudes that label has historically conveyed. You see this across Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, as out-of-state transplants set down roots and native-born younger generations (like Gen-Xers and Millennials) re-examine the historical legacies of our states.
Here in the South, we cannot talk about recasting our image without engaging with our history of racial oppression, segregation, Jim Crow and slavery itself. All of America needs to do this (and in some, small ways, is beginning to), but we in the south – Southerners – more than anyone. For us, this means re-examining so much – our stories, our symbols, our institutions, our families and the mythologies of our history that have been constructed over generations. I don’t think that most non-southerners fully grasp how hard this is. My family has been in Virginia and North Carolina for over 300 years, and there’s a blog post inside me that I’m not quite ready to write about this re-examination of our history. I’ve been thinking a lot about it for the last few years. We’ll see.
Nevertheless, this re-examination is going on everywhere, and it’s fascinating to watch and participate in. The outputs of this clash are not only going to define racial relations throughout the country for decades to come, but many of the cultural trends we will see too.
Politically, it’s simple to see that one more progressive in California or New York or Oregon doesn’t really matter that much. Down south, you matter – not only as a voter, but as an active participant in a civil society that is fundamentally shifting. Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia are early examples of what a big part of America is going to look like for decades to come, and the result isn’t decided yet. We’re still figuring it out.
We live in a big country, where important stuff is happening everywhere, all the time. Some people are fixated on the latest trends in New York City or San Francisco, whose economic primacy wins them outsized media attention. But I think the real long-term drivers of where we’re going as a country are less in San Mateo or Brooklyn than they are in Cary, Greensboro, Mecklenburg County, and down in Roswell and Decatur. That’s where the important struggle is happening now. You should think about joining it.