The North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) adjourned on July 11, to reconvene on Sept. 2, 2020. Since convening in April of this year, the legislature has devoted most of its attention to addressing the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on all aspects of our daily lives, rightfully so. But as I reflect on the events of this past session, I must acknowledge that this year has been like no other in my tenure as a public servant.
While the threats and realities of COVID-19 have been ever present in our state and nation since March, we have also been engaged in an anti-racist movement that has swept across the United States of America since late May. Changes have rippled across the country as America grapples with two plagues: the coronavirus and racism. Health experts advise that to eliminate the former, we must flatten the curve and slow the spread. For the latter, efforts to flatten the curve and slow the spread have failed for 400 years.
The NCGA worked in a bipartisan fashion to address the economically distressing and deadly aspects of COVID-19 by appropriating nearly $4 billion of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. Additionally, legislation and executive orders were enacted to guide North Carolinians through this challenging and unprecedented crisis. There is still much work to be done to prepare for reopening our schools, protecting our healthcare system and reviving our economy.
There was not similar consideration for calls to address the damaging and demoralizing impacts of racism on our society, particularly with respect to policing as an institution. Police brutality against Black people was the catalyst for this moment, but it is just one aspect that the Black Lives Matter movement is targeting to garner systemic change. Protestors continue to demand true justice from America and its institutions.
Republican legislators have largely avoided the topic of this movement and why it is happening. Although the passage of the First Step Act and the Second Chance Act are definitive progress, they are not enough. Initially proposed in 2019, both bills passed the Senate but languished in the House. It is probable that the House would not have passed the updated versions of the bills without the current movement’s momentum. Both of these laws will allow for greater leniency for people entangled with our criminal-legal system. However, neither the First Step Act nor the Second Chance Act can combat the ideologies that informed the actions of the three police officers in Wilmington. Nor can either of them combat the culture that allowed Asheville law enforcement to destroy medical supplies unprovoked. Much has come to light in the past couple of months, but the phenomenon of disproportionate policing of Black and Brown people in our state is not new. In both North Carolina’s past and present, people of color have been abused by law enforcement and other institutions of power.
It is encouraging that Gov. Roy Cooper has established the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. The task force will “develop and help implement strategies & policies to help eliminate systemic racism in our criminal justice system” and will be led by Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein. The Task Force will present recommendations for solutions to stop discriminatory law enforcement and criminal justice practices and to hold public safety officers accountable by December of this year.
I believe that in this moment, we must prepare our state to move from protest to policy to achieve progress in ending systemic racism as it relates to policing and criminal justice. My hope is that all of us would rededicate ourselves to examining every decision we make, every policy we implement and every practice we adhere to through an equity lens to identify impacts on marginalized communities and individuals. What we can do is join the voices of those who condemn the senseless, systemic killing of Black and Brown men, women and children. What we can do is call out the practices and policies that have left many in our state in inadequate housing, living on substandard wages and without access to healthcare, thereby compounding the effects of the pandemic.
It is our mission to tear down the barriers that prevent North Carolinians from growing stronger every day. Over the past year, Democrats have filed dozens of bills to address the disparities that have weighed heavily on our communities. Change is coming, and Senate Democrats stand ready to enact change for North Carolinians who have been shut out of the chance to grow strong and to grow great as described in our State Toast.
Valerie Foushee is the District 23 representative to the N. C. Senate for Orange and Chatham Counties. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org