Dear Thom Tillis: How Long Does It Take For a Black Person to Become a Traditional North Carolinian?


AP Photo/Chuck Burton

In this May 6, 2014, photo Thom Tillis speaks to supporters at a election night rally in Charlotte, N.C., after winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate Tuesday, May 6, 2014.

Dear Thom:


I hope I can call you Thom; you may certainly call me Cynthia. Given the circumstances—given how far the policies you've supported since becoming Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives have reached into my home and even my vagina—I feel we are on intimate terms that make surnames superfluous.

In your 2012 comments to Carolina Business Review, unearthed by TPM last week, you talked about how Republicans need to reach out to communities of color, the type of GOP hand-wringing we've heard since Mitt Romney went down in flames. I believe your specific comment was this:

The traditional population of North Carolina and the United States is more or less stable. It’s not growing. The African American population is roughly growing but the Hispanic population and the other immigrant populations are growing in significant numbers. We’ve got to resonate with those future voters.

Daniel Keylin, your helpful spokesperson, clarified what you meant by "traditional":

“‘Traditional North Carolinians’ refers to North Carolinians who have been here for a few generations. A lot of the state’s recent population growth is from people who move from other states to live, work, and settle down in North Carolina. Thom Tillis, [who moved his family to North Carolina from Virginia in 1998], for example.” 

Nice try, but your comments to CBR specifically excluded African Americans from your definition of “traditional North Carolinians.”

Your narrow and racialized definition of North Carolina-ity—to coin a phrase—neatly cuts out about 20 percent of the state's people, people you purport to represent.

As a lifelong North Carolinian and a lifelong black person, I wonder when people like me will ever fit into your version of citizenship. Just for your reference: My family has been here, in the mountains of Western North Carolina, far longer than the families comprising much of the state’s white population. My father was a crack baseball player (America’s favorite pastime), went to "traditional" segregated schools, and considers himself a patriot because he served this country. Not to mention that we're fairly traditional North Carolina taxpayers and voters, and have been for generations. So my question is: How long does it take for a black North Carolinian to become a "traditional North Carolinian"? I thought we had ironed that out when the 13th amendment granted African Americans citizenship.

As you've found out since these comments rose to the surface during your campaign for U.S. Senate, talking about "traditional" anything is equivalent to sticking one's hand in a hornet's nest; it's hard to withdraw without getting stung. Because, in this country, certain traditions get valorized and become markers of who’s worthy and who’s not. Claiming "tradition" draws boundaries of belonging. Sometimes, those boundaries draw communities of affinity together for good. And sometimes, those boundaries reinforce exclusionary ideas about whose lives (and votes) are important.

Furthermore, since conservatives like you tend to peg traditionalism to family structure, I have to wonder if “traditional” means not just white but white nuclear families headed by a heterosexual married couple, as many black and Hispanic families may look different than white families, with a higher incidence of single-parent households and also extended-family households.

On another point, were your musings about the burgeoning Hispanic population another example of Republican cultural incompetence or a poorly regurgitated statement of demographic facts? Because it’s not really new that our Latino population has surged; North Carolina's Hispanic population jumped almost 400 percent between the 1990 and 2000 U.S. censuses, and it’s a demographic change that has been in the works for a long time.

I sense fear on your part: maybe a pragmatic fear about your political future when there are fewer and fewer "traditional North Carolinians" around to trumpet your agenda. This must be an even greater concern now that you’re running for the U.S. Senate.

But let's call a spade a spade: It also smacks of blatant racism that you, as one of our state's highest-ranking officials, are just now getting on the "outreach-to-communities-of-color" boat. And let's throw in a bit of xenophobia and fear-mongering because you know that, for some of your constituents, our state's changing complexion and growing immigrant population is the Big Bad. 

Let’s just be clear, Thom: I’m not interested in your brand of tradition; I’m interested in the best, most humane traditions of our state. And I think you need a history lesson: Our North Carolina was a state that opened some of the nation’s first public health departments and publicly funded libraries—signs that at least some people in government cared about public health and education.

I'm not surprised at how you fumbled this by-now standard and listless GOP call to diversity. Because I'm a Southerner, I don't think an accent or residence below the Mason-Dixon equals stupidity. In fact, no matter how many jokes I hear about the "Jethros on Jones Street"—where our legislature meets—I know the current political debacle has been carefully orchestrated, with years of painstaking work pandering to “traditional” North Carolinians’ fears and the state’s wealthiest interests. And you, as a management consultant, have been an architect of this lamentable political morass.

First, the General Assembly came for women, gutting an abortion law that guaranteed women access to what remains a legal right. Under the cover of literal night, you and your cronies rammed through abortion restrictions. You did so by attaching it to motorcycle safety and anti-sharia laws—in a state where evangelical Christians have far more numbers and political heft than Muslims. Thanks to your leadership, we’ll be known as the “motorcycle vagina” state for years to come. But, more importantly, North Carolina women face more hardships in making their own decisions about their bodies, their families and their collective futures.

Then you came for the people I'll call "the domestic undocumented": North Carolina citizens who lack government-issued IDs. And you gave us one of the nation's worst voter-suppression laws.

Then, you came for the uninsured by denying the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would have saved the state more money in the long term than it would ever cost.

And then the teachers, whom your colleagues want to pay paltry raises in exchange for their tenure and their rights. Or let’s not fail to mention that, thanks to your cabal, you can tote a gun into a restaurant or bar, precisely the place where weapons shouldn’t be.

It’s a dubious testament to your work that there’s not enough room to include all the North Carolinians affected by the carnival of disenfranchisement that's been happening at the North Carolina statehouse since the bicameral Republican victory of 2010.

That’s one hell of a C.V.

Perhaps you’re proud of your accomplishments. But as a voting, thinking North Carolinian, I’m not.




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