Will N.C. GOP wade back into the culture war?

Critical Race Theory gives General Assembly a new opening with grassroots support. Will they take it?

When Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt took the stage at a monthly meeting of the Orange County GOP, it took all of three minutes before she began talking about Critical Race Theory.

CRT, as it is commonly referred to, is the philosophical controversy of the moment, made more potent in North Carolina as the state continues to debate how it will teach history and social studies in public schools.

As other states have done, the N.C. House passed a bill taking aim at Critical Race Theory by proposing that school districts be prohibited from teaching that a person is “is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” based solely on the color of their skin.

But Truitt warned her audience that they shouldn’t get their hopes up that it will become law. Not because of Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper, who has shattered the state’s record for gubernatorial vetoes. Because of the Republican-controlled Senate.

“I don’t think the Senate’s going to pick up this bill, y’all, so just be ready for that,” she warned the audience. “They don’t want to touch it because they don’t want the publicity. … They want companies like Apple and Google to come to North Carolina, who will say, ‘No, we’re not going to come to a state that bans what teachers can teach and can’t teach.’”

Her comments touch on a growing discontent in North Carolina’s GOP, between conservative voters who want their political leaders to play a role in the cultural battles in America, and more traditional, Chamber of Commerce Republicans focused on recruiting businesses and growing the economy. The former camp is led by Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. The latter has no clear standard-bearer, for fear of running afoul of the base.

The faction has power, though. For the last five years, the General Assembly has largely steered clear of hot-button cultural issues after being chastened by the national backlash against House Bill 2. That reticence has only grown since Republicans lost their veto-proof majority in the 2018 elections.

But as the culture war nationally reaches a new fever pitch, General Assembly leaders are at least signaling that they might be willing to wade back in.

Within a few days of making her remarks, Truitt had gotten an earful from leaders in the Senate. She posted a statement on Twitter: “[I]t’s clear the Senate will move a bill they feel is in the best interest of NC, its students, and will not bend to the whims of corporations and tech companies.”

The Republican economic success story

Parachute journalists tend to describe North Carolina politics as long dominated by a conservative GOP, but the truth is much the opposite. For more than a century, Democrats had virtually unfettered control over state government. But as the national party drifted leftward, so did Democrats in North Carolina.

The state’s utter unpreparedness for the Great Recession beginning in 2009 was the final blow. In the 2010 elections, Republicans grabbed control of the General Assembly, and two years later took the Executive Mansion as well.

Empowered for the first time in state history, the GOP moved swiftly to implement its agenda — with overwhelmingly positive results. The General Assembly dramatically eased the tax burden on North Carolina families and small businesses, saved billions of dollars for natural disaster response and future recessions, and unlocked school choice through charter schools and private school vouchers for low-income families.

The economy has blossomed as a result, making North Carolina one of the fastest-growing states in the country and one of the best in which to do business.

Early in their tenure, GOP leaders stepped swiftly into cultural issues as well – though the effects have largely been stymied by the legal system. The state passed a voter ID law that was later struck down in the courts and abortion restrictions that haven’t made a dent in the ongoing tragedy.

Then came House Bill 2.

The legacy of HB2

In a nutshell, House Bill 2 was a response to a sloppily worded Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance that sought to, among other things, empower transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity rather than their sex.

The law, signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016, required people to use bathrooms designated for the sex listed on their birth certificates in public buildings, and prevented cities from passing nondiscrimination ordinances.

The backlash was swift. The NBA moved its All-Star Game out of Charlotte, Deutsche Bank canceled a planned expansion in Cary, and Bruce Springsteen called off a concert in Greensboro. McCrory immediately issued executive orders to blunt the law’s impact, but the reversal angered many conservatives and was not enough to salvage his job. In less than a year, Republican leaders collaborated with the new governor, Cooper, on a bill to repeal House Bill 2.

Since then, the General Assembly has been loath to tackle controversial cultural issues. Bills to expand Second Amendment rights have repeatedly died in one chamber or the other. North Carolina has not seriously considered a “heartbeat bill” as neighboring states have done.

Bills that have been championed have been important but timid steps at best: Bills that would require sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration officers, and ensure babies born alive during the course of an abortion get adequate medical care (both were vetoed by the governor, and override efforts failed).

This session, the General Assembly has so far sidestepped the hot-button culture war issues being taken up in states like Florida. While bills have been introduced to restrict girls’ sports to women, prevent doctors from performing gender reassignment surgery on children, and ban Critical Race Theory — none have moved far.

It’s an approach favored by conservative leaders in other states — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed a bill on transgender surgery for children, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem vetoed one on transgender athletes in women’s sports (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a notable exception).

And it has largely kept North Carolina out of the national spotlight.

Is banning CRT worth it?

The kind of corporate backlash that whipped North Carolina in 2016 is still a potent threat (see Georgia as an example, though its legislative leaders haven’t backed away from their voting integrity law).

There’s also political calculus. Some comfort: The Republican Party maintained its majority through the 2020 elections, giving the party control over the upcoming redistricting process. Robinson won a clear majority in the lieutenant governor’s race running a high-energy grassroots campaign based heavily on cultural issues.

But North Carolina has a key U.S. Senate race in 2022, and the state is still more purple than other classically red states. In an urbanizing state, it is safer to run on issues with 60%+ support than on wedge issues.

General Assembly leaders are undoubtedly weighing whether tackling Critical Race Theory will be a net positive or negative toward their larger goal of boosting North Carolina’s economy.

There’s no clear answer. Critical Race Theory is just nebulous enough that both sides of the issue can find evidence to back up their position supporting or opposing it.

North Carolina would undoubtedly be slandered as racist if the bill advances. The left has dishonestly attempted to tie opposition to CRT as promoting Confederate ideology. However, Critical Race Theory is not simply teaching about slavery, Jim Crow or racism. It’s not even just allowing that the legacy of slavery has impacts on today’s society. Opposition to Critical Race Theory is not about whitewashing history, ignoring the bad things in America’s past or putting blinders on problems today.

In practice, CRT is a philosophy that views the United States as poisoned with racism from its founding, and charges that all American institutions are indelibly racist. It teaches that group identity is much more important than individual characteristics, dividing people into subgroups stuck in an oppressive caste system. White students should be ashamed of the color of their skin, the theory holds, while black students are unable to succeed because society is stacked against them.

In North Carolina’s public schools, students have been asked to take an inventory of their privilege or oppression and explored “whiteness in science,” while teachers have been instructed to “disrupt white culture” in the classroom.

It’s a worldview that a sizable majority of North Carolinians would likely oppose if they are able to cut through the noise around the issue. If properly understood, it’s likely closer to a common-sense issue than a wedge one.

Will that be enough for the General Assembly to break through its hesitancy to make waves in the culture war?

Not anytime soon. Despite the comments made to Truitt, the House-approved bill on restricting CRT in the classroom has been stuck in committee for a week.

But North Carolina’s GOP leaders can’t run from cultural issues forever. Conservative voters want more than a tax break. If the current crop of leaders won’t deliver it, they’ll find someone who will, for better and for worse.