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  • COVID-19 in North Carolina

    We approach a most joyous time of year, filled with festivities, family reunions and religious significance. But this year we will need to find creative ways to celebrate gratefulness, love and family. As the holidays loom, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an ominous turn for the worse. During the first week of November, there were 17,759 new cases of the coronavirus in North Carolina. On Wednesday, Nov. 11, the state set a new daily record of 3,119 lab-confirmed cases, breaking the previous record of 2,908 cases set on Nov. 6. “This is not the milestone we want to be hitting, particularly as we head into holidays where people want to come together. I am asking North Carolinians to do what they do best, look out for each other,” North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy K. Cohen said during a briefing. As of Nov. 12, a total of 303,931 North Carolinians had contracted COVID-19 and 4,730 had died from it. Nationwide, epidemiologists, scientists and public health officials are warning that the worst days of the virus are ahead. The upcoming holidays create the potential for innumerable super-spreading events and set the country up for a “COVID hell” in the words of epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who was recently named to President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force. On Nov. 9, Pfizer announced a vaccine that is more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19. But it appears unlikely that large numbers of people will be able to get it until the spring of 2021, too late to save us from a potentially deadly winter. Doctors have gotten better at treating the virus, but vulnerable people still die from it. On Tuesday, Nov. 10, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an order reducing the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings from 25 to 10. The order took effect on Friday, Nov. 13, and lasts until Dec. 4. But no executive order will keep us safe . Only by taking personal responsibility for following the guidelines that have proven effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 can we hope to get through the next few months without losing hundreds or even thousands more North Carolinians to the virus. While the threat may seem abstract unless you or someone you love has contracted COVID-19, failing to adhere to those safety protocols is akin to playing Russian roulette with your own and others’ lives. The best way to reduce the risk of viral transmission is to limit travel and limit physical contact with people who do not live in your household, according to the NCD HHS. Instead of visiting in person, this is a good year to take advantage of virtual platforms to send greetings and to stay in touch with loved ones and neighbors. But if you have grown weary of prohibitions against gathering with friends and family, consider holding an outdoor celebration. For instance, throughout North Carolina there are brilliant winter lights displays where families and friends can rendezvous and share a bit of outdoor magic. You’ll find some of them listed below. Keep in mind that any gathering with people outside your own home poses a risk for COVID-19 transmission. But if you do choose to host a gathering, NCDHHS offers guidelines for hosting lower and moderate risk activities. Most importantly, if you do gath er with people outside your household, follow the advice of NDHHS Secretary Cohen to wear a mask, wait six feet apart and wash your hands often. “We’ve had more time to learn about this devastating virus and study after study shows that these three simple actions can help keep our family, friends and neighbors from getting sick,” Cohen said. With the announcement from Pfizer of a promising vaccine, we can begin to see our way out of this valley of despair. That gives us much to be thankful for this holiday season. But for now, doing all we can to keep our family and friends safe from a potentially deadly virus is the best gift we can give them.

  • Choose candidates who can best steer the economy

    Evaluating policy costs and benefits not only confuses voters, but also the policymakers who craft those policies. Well-meaning elected officials often champion what seem like prudent actions, though unintended consequences may cost taxpayers and society much more. North Carolina’s failure to expand Medicaid and restore decent unemployment benefits are useful examples. Voters should carefully weigh the full benefits and costs when marking ballots on Nov. 3. (Another good example is Trump’s 2017 co rporate tax cuts that purported to “pay for themselves” but failed to create promised growth, driving up fiscal deficits.) In considering, and rejecting, Medicaid expansion, N.C.’s legislators perhaps did not know they were indirectly causing deaths. The poor and uninsured forgo preventive care, which may worsen chronic conditions such as cardiovascular problems or dia betes. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a D.C.-based research center, estimates that 1,400 North Carolinians between the ages of 55 and 65 died due to unaffordable care between 2014 and 2017. At the polls, think about those deaths. Evidence from the 39 states and the District of Columbia that have widened eligibility demonstrates the benefits of improved access to care. Positive effects also include greater financial security and employment gains. Add to those benefits the taxpayer dollars saved through reduced costs for uncompensated care and the expansion looks like a spending win. It would also help rural hospitals, which are closing at alarming rates. Health Affairs reports that the expansion covers childless adults earning less than $17,236, and helped cut rural hospitals’ uncompensated care costs. That stabilizes finances. The federal government pays 67 percent of N.C. Medicaid costs now; after expansion the share would rise to 90 percent. The federal match offsets much of the cost, according to the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget and Tax Center. A healthier population with better financial and job prospects means that taxpayer-funded state agencies will save money. Higher reimbursement rates, fewer uncompensated mental health services, and direct payments for service and treatment for the incarcerated are a few of those savings. When people lack insurance, they forgo medical care, which drives up treatment costs because it sends them to emergency rooms and possibly hospital beds, more expensive than getting regular checkups. In North Carolina, the General Assembly has rejected federal dollars for expansion since 2013, according to the N.C. Justice Center. Some 194,000 state residents make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to receive a subsidy. Seven rural hospitals have closed since 2013; others struggle financially. Uninsurance disproportionately burdens people of color. Another interesting benefit: In Medicaid expansion states, private insurance premium rates are 7 percent lower, on average. North Carolina is practicing a false economy in failing to expan d Medicaid and bolster unemployment benefits (see our September 20 Commentary.) Both policies would deliver benefits. There’s more. At the federal level, the U.S. economy would recover more quickly under a “blue wave,” according to Moody’s Analytics, because the plan front-loads investments in people—spending on infrastructure, education, healthcare, and other social programs, which brings full employment back more quickly, post-pandemic; it also channels money to those who need money at a time when we need spending. Spending makes up 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. In a recession, increased personal spending lifts all boats. “Trump’s economic policy, such as it is, improves the lot of rich people , who have a low ‘propensity to consume,’” says Greensboro-based economist Andy Br od. “There’s nothing wrong with saving, but spending is what drives the economy.” One more consideration: Economic recessions over the past 50 years have fallen under Republican administrations, though President Obama inherited the financial-crisis fallout, the 2007-2009 recession. Republicans spend as freely as Democrats do, notes economist Nouriel Roubini, but won’t raise taxes to pay for it. Betty Joyce Nash reported for the Hendersonville Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record before moving to Virginia where she worked as an economics writer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. She co-edited Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, published in 2017 by the University of New Mexico Press; the anthology probes Americans’ complicated relationship to firearms. Betty Joyce Nash writes for Carolina Commentary. For more information, see www.bettyjoycenash.com

  • Militia groups are growing

    Over the past decade, there’s been a growing militarization of hate groups that call themselves “militias.” These are people driven largely by white-extremists views. Many policy experts believe these people are very distraught about the growing demographic diversity of the United States. William H. Frey, Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, confirms the trend: “The nation is diversifying even faster than predicted, according to new center data.” Militias date back to 1792, when the U.S. Congress provided for their organization and empowered the President of the United States to take command of the state militias in times of imminent invasion or insurrection. The original Militia Act was repealed and replaced in 1795, 1808 and 1862 during the Civil War. The Militia Act of 1903 repealed and superseded the Militia Act of 1795 and established the U.S. National Guard as the nation’s chief body of primary organized military reserves in the country. “Militia” generally refers to a group of able-bodied residents between certain ages who may be, at some point, called up by the government to defend the United States or an individual state. I cannot think of any American, male or female, who would not rise to the occasion to defend the homeland against foreign or domestic invaders or terrorists. Our nation may be diversifying faster than predicted, but that fails to explain the global growth of far-right extremists. A study of German society’s biggest fears, released earlier this year by the Berlin Social Science Center, showed that one in three respondents feared “foreign infiltration” because of the immigrant influx. In Germany, militias say they patrol in locations where the police do not. This has caused many Germans to worry, as militias seek to bar immigrants from entering the country and receiving jobs and social benefits in Germany. In the United States, militias have a recent record of violence nationwide. FBI Director Christopher Wray in his statement before the House Homeland Security Committee in September, said: “The greatest threat we face in the homeland is that posed by lone actors radicalized online who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons. We see this lone actor threat manifested both within domestic violent extremists and homegrown violent extremists.” Wray went on to say that domestic violent extremists are individuals who commit violent criminal acts to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as racial bias and anti-government sentiment. “The top threat we face from domestic violent extremists stems from those we identify as racially/ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVE). RMVEs were the primary source of ideologically m otivated lethal incidents and violence in 2018 and 2019 and have been considered the most lethal of all domestic extremists since 2001.” Will Carless and Michael Corey, writers for Reveal, of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Journalism, surmise the broader militia movement has been a breeding ground for racist domestic terrorism. The Southern Poverty Law Center followed 940 hate groups across the United States in 2019. In North Carolina, the SPLC tracked at least forty (40) hate groups, according to Keegan Hankes, a researcher who says the number is growing. You can follow SPLC updated information on twitter @hatewatch. The critical question is: What do you do about militia s and hate groups in America that conspire to take the law into their own hands, such as the would-be kidnappers in Michigan and Virginia who plotted to kidnap and possibly take the life of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia. Their goal was to instigate a civil war. What drove these men in Michigan to think that this is okay to kidnap and threaten American governors? Why are they anti-government and plotting for social unrest? Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab and Professor of Education and Sociology School of Education at American University, has studied the issue. “The goal of the extreme right is to establish white-ethnocentric status, deportation of nonwhites or non-Europeans, and the reduction of the rights for ethnic minorities,” she writes in her book; Hate in the Homeland, The New Global Right. The political polarization and the silence from our governmental and political leaders, who continue to wink and nod at the behavior of these anti-American groups is troubling, to say the least. For America to turn the tables on what the FBI director call s our greatest threat. We need the collective resolve of the people to change the hearts and minds of those who diminish nonwhite people and seek to destroy our government and our democracy. The road ahead will challenge us to reclaim who we are as Americans. Virgil L. Smith formerly served as president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times and Vice President for Human Resources for the Gannett Company. He is the principal for the Smith Edwards Group and writes for Carolina Commentary.

  • People Without Paychecks: Unemployment’s Hidden Costs

    Misguided and shortsighted political sparring and foot-dragging over expanded unemployment insurance (UI) will continue as long as elected officials fail to recognize the hidden costs of joblessness, which far exceed payouts. One dollar of unemployment compensation returns $1.90 to the economy because it gooses demand for goods and services at times when consumer spending plunges. People who live paycheck to paycheck, as half of American workers do, spend more of their pay than wealthy people do. Voters should choose candidates who recognize and acknowledge the devastation joblessness brings to workers and families, candidates who are willing to strengthen UI benefits, one of the few benefits available to workers in non-union states. Unemployment compensation was established by the Social Security Act of 1935, as the U.S. crawled out of the debilitating Great Depression. It’s designed to give people without paychecks time to find new jobs without starving or going broke. Boosted by stimulus checks and expanded UI, consumer spending jumped from minus 12.9 percent in April 2020 to 8.2 percent in May; in June and July, as benefits dwindled or expired, spending dropped to 6.2 percent and 1.9 percent respectively. North Carolina’s July 2020 unemployment rate was 8.5 percent. Some jobs, especially in the service sector, won’t bounce back. Especially if Covid rates spike again. During the Great Recession, from 2008 to 2012, unemployment compensation fended off approximately 1.4 million foreclosures, and an additional 18 percent shortfall in gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Center for American Progress. Economic research into joblessness reveals less obvious but equally troubling costs to individuals and society. Unemployment affects physical and psychological health; it can even take years off your life. People without paychecks may need Supplemental Nutritional Assistance well beyond the federal SNAP benefit levels; the jobless may lose health insurance, and forgo medical care. This swells Medicaid rolls, even as North Carolina legislators refuse to expand eligibility, forcing more patients to seek emergency care. As unemployment drags on, workers stop saving or raid retirement funds. This robs their future spending ability. Their skills deteriorate. This hurts not only future employment, but also re-employment wages, which may be 5 to 15 percent less than workers who did not lose their jobs. Unemployment demoralizes people and affects future planning. Workers may fail to invest in training or education that might improve prospects. They may forgo investments in children’s education, which deprives the next generation of talents and skills necessary to maintain a strong stable economy. And some unemployment compensation ends up as taxes, contributing to state revenues, which states desperately need, since they must balance budgets. The Economic Policy Institute reports that despite August gains of 1.4 million jobs, the U.S. is still 11.9 million jobs shy of February 2020 employment levels. Without additional federal aid to avoid layoffs, North Carolina could lose another 156,500 state and local government jobs. N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s buy-in to Trump’s offer of $300 per week of unemployment compensation, for three weeks, may be better than nothing, but by the time you read this, it’s probably run out. Likewise, the General Assembly recently ratified a $50 per week increase in UI, but did not approve Cooper’s proposal to extend benefits to 24 weeks and raise the maximum benefit to $500 per week. Unable to weather months without income, or pay rent, many businesses, especially small ones, will close for good. Meanwhile, mortgage delinquencies and evictions are rising. Despite an eviction moratorium, payments will eventually come due. The money is still owed. And by mid-August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 46 percent of North Carolina’s unemployed had been without work for 15 to 26 weeks. Support candidates who will advocate for increases in N.C.’s weekly benefit calculation, allowable maximum benefits, and duration. Without adequate compensation for those who are out of work, through no fault of their own, people without paychecks impose future costs on everyone. Note: At press time, additional virus aid had failed to pass the U.S. Senate. Betty Joyce Nash reported for the Hendersonville Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record before moving to Virginia where she worked as an economics writer. She co-edited Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, published in 2017 by the University of New Mexico Press; the anthology probes Americans’ complicated relationship to firearms. She writes for Carolina Commentary. For more information, see www.bettyjoycenash.com.

  • North Carolina voting has begun

    The calendar says election day is Nov. 3, but here in North Carolina, it’s already begun. The State Board of Elections began mailing out absentee ballots Friday, September 4th to voters who had requested them. Some have already been returned. In North Carolina, any registered voter can request such a ballot and vote by mail. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, that option is being explored by a record number of North Carolinians. As of last week, more than 640,000 requests had been logged, compared to fewer than 40,000 over the same period in 2016. Of those requests, 337,362 were from registered Democrats, 200,359 Unaffiliated and 103,620 Republicans. N.C.’s 11th Congressional District, which includes Jackson County, also saw a big jump, said Christopher Cooper, Department Head of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He noted, “Traditionally, there has not been much of a partisan divide in NC on absentee by mail requests—this year is not following tradition.” Almost half – 44 percent – of the 540 requests were from Democratic voters. Cooper said, “Some of the NC11 counties have some of the biggest increases over 2016, including Buncombe (a 360 percent increase over 2016) and Haywood (375 percent). Henderson also rates high – 14 percent of registered voters in Henderson county have requested a ballot.” What do the early returns say? “I’ve been joking that reading the tea leaves into return patterns at this point would be like thinking you know something about a baseball season based on whether the first pitch of the first game was a strike,” Cooper said. “Still—it’s important to report, in my opinion, because it shows that vote by mail is working and that counties are processing the requests as they’re supposed to.” Voters can return their ballot by mail or return it to the elections board. One thing they can’t do is vote twice, despite some suggestions to the contrary in recent days. Karen Brinson Bell, N.C. State Board of Elections Executive Director, said it’s a Class I felony for a voter who has “intent to commit a fraud to register or vote at more than one precinct or more than one time … in the same primary or election… Attempting to vote twice in an election or soliciting someone to do so also is a violation of North Carolina law.” There’s been some irresponsible talk that people should mail in a ballot and then attempt to vote in-person to test the system’s integrity. We imagine “testing the system’’ is as likely to hold up in court as saying you yanked on the door of that armored bank truck just to make sure your money was safe. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 27, but given recent issues with the USPS its recommended voters do so well before that date. In-person early voting begins Oct. 15. Will the surge in mail voting delay North Carolina’s count when the polls close at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 3? Possibly, but likely only minimally. Under state law, ballots postmarked on or before 5 p.m. Election Day and arrive before Nov. 6 are counted. In squeaky-tight races – like North Carolina’s 2016 gubernatorial race, decided by less than 11,000 votes – those late-breaking votes could be critical. But most results in the state should be obvious on election night. And remember, elections officials don’t declare winners on election night. They release official numbers following a canvass. Media outlets do declare election night winners; this year, if that doesn’t happen in some races, remember these words from Associated Press Deputy Managing Editor David Scott on horse-race winner calls: “It’s always been an unfair expectation ‘in time for your late local news’ on the East Coast. It was unfair before the pandemic. It’s definitely unfair in a pandemic now.” In other words, it’s 2020. Be patient in seeing how your vote impacts the election. The first step in that process, of course, is to be sure you cast it in the first place. Jim Buchanan is the editor of The Sylvia Herald, former Editorial Page Editor for the Asheville Citizen-Times and writes for Carolina Commentary.

  • Now is the time to complete your census in North Carolina

    North Carolina could miss out on an additional congressional seat and forfeit billions of dollars in state and federal tax dollars that rightfully belong to state citizens unless the people who live here get more serious about participating in the 2020 Census. North Carolina’s response rate is poor overall and abysmal in some counties where those dollars, sent to Washington in the form of taxes paid by North Carolinians, are desperately needed. Unless the census reflects an accurate count of Tarheel residents, North Carolina’s share of federal money will go to other states. As of August 13, North Carolina’s response rate of 59.6 percent trailed the national response rate of 63.6 percent by four points. Response rates in some counties were far worse. Examples include: Avery, 29.9 percent; Swain, 33.3 percent, Jackson, 33 percent; Dare, 34.8 percent, Hyde, 38.5 percent. The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 2) requires that a census of the nation’s population occur every 10 years. The first one took place in 1790. The most basic reason for the census is to apportion the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The number of representatives is fixed by law at 435. Based on its population in 2010, North Carolina sends 13 to Congress. While some states are projected to lose seats after the 2020 census, North Carolina is projected to gain a seat. Census counts are also used for redistricting within the state, which means undercounted areas won’t get fair representation in state government either. By not participating in the Census you are disempowering yourself and your community and not just by the loss of fair representation in federal and state government. Based on Census data, states and local communities received more than $675 billion in federal funds for health, education, housing, and infrastructure programs during Fiscal Year 2015, according to one study. Every person counted in the Census brings about $2,000 in federal spending to the state over the next 10 years, another study estimated. Census counts are used by federal, state and local governments to plan the location of everything from post offices and schools to libraries and fire stations. A community that’s undercounted could face a longer drive (on poorer roads) to use a library computer or longer wait times for a fire truck or the EMS to arrive. Those extra minutes could make a life or death difference in some heart attack, allergic reaction or drug overdose cases. When scouting for locations, manufacturers, businesses and commercial outlets also use Census data. Undercounted areas are less likely to attract the jobs and opportunities they offer. And as any genealogist knows, Census data is an invaluable source of family history. The information – name, age, gender, ethnicity and relationship to the head of household of each person living at a given address – cannot, by law, be released by the U.S. Census Bureau for 72 years, not to the public or to any other government agency, including law enforcement or immigration authorities. All Census workers are sworn to protect this information and can be punished by a $250,000 fine and five years in prison if they fail to do so. Only demographic data is released. But for anyone wanting to know more about who and where they came from, once it’s released after 72 years, Census data provides vital information. For instance, the descendants of recent immigrants will one day be able to find their ancestors and mark the arrival of their family in the United States through Census data. The 2020 Census operation began in 2019, but was put on hold in the spring as a result of the pandemic. In April, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham asked Congress to extend the statutory deadlines. That hasn’t happened, but 48 senators are asking Senate and House leaders to include an extension in the next coronavirus relief package. In the meantime, the Census restarted in July. At the beginning of August, the Trump administration decided to end all counting efforts on Sept. 30, a month sooner than previously announced. If no extension is granted, the result is expected to be a grievous undercount, especially in poor and minority communities. Everyone living in the United States is required by law to respond to the Census. Census workers are being trained and deployed to knock on the doors of people who haven’t yet done so. These workers will have government identification badges, will be wearing face coverings and are being trained to follow other safety precautions to reduce the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. But without an extension, it seems unlikely they will be able to get a complete count. If you are one of those non-participants, you can save yourself from having your day interrupted by a census worker and help stake your own and your community’s claim to your rightful voice and share of assets by completing the Census online or over the phone. Both options allow you to choose your preferred language. It will take less than 10 minutes. Our founders understood that having accurate demographic information was essential to allocating power and resources equitably in a self-governing nation. Every North Carolinian ought to do his or her part to insure our state gets its fair share of both. Joy Franklin is a retired journalist who writes for carolinacommentary.com.

  • Dismantling Structural and Systemic Racism

    Asheville City Council members are to be commended for the historic and courageous move they took July 14 when they approved a resolution that calls for reparations for Black Ashevillians and issued an apology for the city’s role in the enslavement of Black people. The resolution recognizes the city’s participation in policies that stripped Black residents of the opportunity to build generational wealth, relegated them to second class status in every area of their lives, including health care and education, and caused them to fear law enforcement, the very institution that should have protected their safety. The city council is looking to the future by directing the city manager to come back in a year with short, medium and long-term recommendations to address the creation of generational wealth and opportunity for the Black community. There is no question that many White Americans benefited from slavery and have enjoyed a systemic advantage that includes wealth passed on from generation to generation. This resolution, approved unanimously, represents bold action by these locally elected officials during these times of civil unrest and crisis resulting from COVID-19. Some people may think reparations means a check is on the way in the manner of the legendary and unfulfilled promiseof “40 acres and a mule.” The Asheville City Council resolution does not mandate direct payments. Instead it will make investments in areas where Black residents face disparities. Reparations for slavery is a political justice concept that the descendants of slaves should be compensated for the bondage endured by their ancestors. It should be noted that slave owners received compensated emancipation, the money that some governments paid some slave owners when slavery was abolished, as compensation for the financial loss of free labor. It is too late to compensate the ancestors who suffered under slavery. It is not too late to give their descendants a fair and equitable opportunity to achieve the American dream, without being handicapped before entering the game, by breaking down the walls of institutional racism. The actions of the Asheville City Council seem intended to give an advantage to those who have been disadvantaged for generations. Reparations are not new to America. Americans have received compensation for injustices a number of times in the past. The Indian Claims Commission compensated tribes for land seized by the United States. Japanese-Americans interned during World War II received close to $1.6 billion paid to 82,219 eligible claimants. In other examples, reparations were paid to survivors of police abuse in Chicago, victims of forced sterilization, and Black residents of a Florida town that was burned by a murderous White mob. North Carolina became the first state in America to pass a law compensating survivors of the eugenics program that sterilized poor and disabled African Americans. The fund to compensate the victims was close to $10 million, according to Adeel Hassan, a reporter and editor on the National Desk at the New York Times. There have been many attempts to change historical symbols of racism. They are nice gestures, but they don’t go far enough toward addressing the economic and educational issues of descendants of slaves. What impact does removing Aunt Jemima from the cover of pancake boxes after 131 years and other symbolic gestures have on the lives of Black Americans? So what needs to happen? As the Asheville Resolution states, “Black People have been denied housing through racist practices in the private realty market, including redlining, blockbusting, denial of mortgages and gentrification, discriminatory wages paid in every sector and the list of injustices goes on. The Asheville City Council resolution is a vigorous attempt to undo structural and systemic racism, which has been in place in many forms since the days of slavery. As they have been reminded time and again, including the tragic change of policy during Reconstruction and the economic disparities of the 20th Century, Black Americans have been excluded since birth from equal opportunity in America. Black families have long told their children, that they cannot be average because they must be twice as good as White people. Silent and subtle racism has been a part of the nation for years. Blacks are not the only ones who have suffered; immigrants from every continent have faced racism, most recently by the Muslim ban and the anti-immigration policy for Mexico and Latin American nations. Racism is and has been a part of the fabric of America, but we enable it when we see the systemic unfairness and disparate treatment and fail to call it out. The Asheville City Council has risen above others and displayed courage to address structural racism facing Black Americans in their city. Their action challenges North Carolina and the federal government to join them in addressing the systematic discrimination against Black Americans. History will reflect favorably on their courage and action. Virgil L. Smith formerly served as president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times and Vice President for Human Resources for the Gannett Company. He is the principal for the Smith Edwards Group and writes for Carolina Commentary.

  • Why sale of McClatchy Newspapers matters to North Carolinians

    The recent announcement that Chatham Asset Management, a New Jersey-based hedge fund, won the bankruptcy court auction to buy McClatchy Newspapers is momentous news for North Carolinians. McClatchy owns three newspapers in North Carolina, including the two most important when it comes to covering public policy issues of statewide importance. McClatchy bought the Raleigh-based News & Observer in 1995 and acquired the Charlotte Observer in 2006 when it bought the Knight Ridder chain. It also owns The Herald-Sun in Durham. All three will now be owned by Chatham. Undoubtedly, the sale of McClatchy Newspapers to a hedge fund is not what the thousands of employees and the McClatchy family envisioned for this iconic employer. In the early 70’s it was common place to see Eleanor McClatchy, the matriarch of the family and the company, walking the halls in her unassuming way as she greeted employees by name. In the early days McClatchy owned three newspapers all named “Bee.” The newspapers and several radio and television stations were located in Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno. These were the days when media companies were permitted to own multi-media operations in the same market. The McClatchy company was well known for treating its people well and was a place with long tenured employees highlighted by the large membership in the 25-year club. The company was generous in the communities, with venues such as McClatchy High School, McClatchy Park bearing the name of the family and the company. Eleanor McClatchy was a generous sponsor of the Music Circus, a theatrical and musical venue and so much more. The company took a turn towards corporate in the mid 70’s with the hiring of North Carolinian Erwin Potts as the director of newspaper operations. He later became the first non-McClatchy family member to serve as CEO of the company, from 1989 to 1996. Potts is credited with leading the growth years of McClatchy into a national media company. In 2006, McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt and the Board of Directors made a dramatic decision under pressure from investors to purchase the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, an award-winning company with 84 Pulitzers. The purchase by the smaller McClatchy newspaper company for $4.5 billion in cash and stock was viewed as a great move by many journalists. But it was questioned by newspaper business leaders. Many in the industry would argue this was the beginning of the end for McClatchy. The company took on massive debt and made a bet that the future was bright for the newspaper industry. In fact, newspapers have been battered by the generational change towards technology and readers’ desire for immediacy coupled with fleeing advertisers who moved from print to digital and direct contact with their customers. The purchase of McClatchy by Chatham Asset Management signals a new and uncertain future for the proud company. Like newsrooms across the state, those at the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer have already been cut to the bone. Chances are, the cuts will continue under Chatham’s ownership, further diminishing North Carolinians’ access to news about state and local governments they need to be informed participants in the democratic process. In 2016, Chatham acquired two-thirds ownership of Postmedia, the largest newspaper chain in Canada, and the publisher of the Vancouver Sun. Current and former employees told the New York Times that “the company has cut its work force, shuttered papers across Canada, reduced salaries and benefits, and centralized editorial operations in a way that has made parts of its 106 newspapers into clones of one another.” Postmedia’s chief executive, Andrew MacLeod, told the New York Times that Chatham isn’t involved in the day-to-day operation of the business, and that the cost cuts were “natural outcomes of a legacy business that’s been in structural decline.” He said Chatham was one of the few financial players willing to take a risk on a newspaper business. It’s hard to argue with that rationale. In less than a lifetime, the industry has changed dramatically from the days when highly profitable family-owned newspapers, like those owned by the McClatchy’s, took great pride in their watchdog role and willingly expended their resources to produce great and important stories. In a new book titled “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” Margaret Sullivan quotes a PEN America study, “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency and effectiveness and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked…” Another result, according to the PEN study, is that citizens are less likely to vote, are less politically informed and are less likely to run for office. We can only wait to see how the new owner of three of North Carolina’s most important newspapers discharges the responsibility the First Amendment guarantee of a free press carries with it. But it is a sobering time as the restructuring continues of an industry that, like public education, is critical to our ability as North Carolinians and Americans to govern ourselves. Joy Franklin is a journalist and writer who served as editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times for 10 years. Prior to that she served as executive editor of the Times-News in Hendersonville., N.C. Franklin writes for Carolina Commentary. Virgil L. Smith formerly served as president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times and Vice President for Human Resources for the Gannett Company. Smith worked for McClatchy Newspapers for twenty years in Sacramento and Fresno, CA. He is the principal for the Smith Edwards Group and writes for Carolina Commentary.

  • Looting: A Cry for Economic Justice

    The looting of consumer goods at mass protests symbolically shouts the desperate message of people fed up with police killings and a political system that excludes them from health, wealth, and equal treatment. The long, hideous, racist history of police killings of Black people is execution-style violence that harks back to the days of slave patrols and lynchings. The latest demonstrations ignited, but also united, people of all stripes who want the killing to stop. They want justice: in courts, on streets, and in the economy. But looting isn’t only practiced by angry protesters. The Trump administration, abetted by an obsequious Senate, loots our economy by selling our national lands to oil and gas interests, serving up tax cuts for the rich, at our expense, which jeopardizes our future wealth. Even the pandemic rescue package buried more than $135 billion in tax breaks for the wealthy; the act itself was ineptly administered, and of scant help to minority businesses. Gutted environmental regulations loot our health and safety, today and tomorrow. Other policies, for instance, human rights actions—widespread maltreatment of immigrant detainees, including abuse of children—rob us in less obvious ways, by eroding U.S. influence and reputation abroad. Among other effects, this makes it difficult to attract talent and business investment. Two recently-announced North Carolina state task forces, one to rout racism in criminal justice, another to tackle racial differences in health care, are laudable, but for real results in the quality of life for poor people, economic justice should be served. It’s called progress. It requires active intervention. Otherwise, those who can’t now fully participate in labor, housing, credit, and other markets—Black, Latinx, Indigenous people—will continue to suffer, and so, too, will the economy, which is a national shame. The hugely profitable, Charlotte-based, Bank of America ($53 billion in earnings, the past two years) has pledged $1 billion over four years toward affordable housing, health, job training, and small business programs. “Things aren’t going to quiet down, they shouldn’t quiet down on making the economic progress and core social progress we need to make here,” CEO Brian Moynihan said on CNBC. There’s no reason why the phrase economic justice should be an oxymoron. People should earn wages on which they can live, wages that allow full participation in the economy. Economic justice means closing wage gaps. Providing sick leave. H elping people find jobs that reflect their skills and potential, and, when necessary, retraining. This is what a civil society does. Especially a rich civil society. Covid-19 deaths and record job losses hit minorities hard, exposing the deep, wide chasm in wages and wealth, especially between Black people and white people. When low wages and persistent racism keep people from labor, credit and health care markets, the legacy of discrimination is transferred from one generation to the next. With little or no household wealth, a legacy of slavery, to sustain them, Black families can’t weather recessions. Median Black household wealth is 10 percent that of median white households, according to the Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke. Though Black people represent 13 percent of U.S. population, they hold less than three percent of its wealth, according to William “Sandy” Darity, an economist at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He cites centuries of harm, dating back to slavery, for today’s systemic inequality that drives disparities between racial health and wealth. He and co-author A. Kirsten Mullen, who writes about race, politics, and history, recently published, From Here to Equality. The book details a case for reparations. Along with slavery, he cites apartheid (Jim Crow and “white terror”), along with wage penalties, psychological and physical wounds, ongoing educational disparities, labor and housing market discrimination, confinement to certain neighborhoods, often sub-standard, and, disproportionate levels of incarceration . Disparities are the result of cumulative historical effects, not behavior. Reparations can help “alter this terrain,” Darity says. Innovative social policies, in which reparations could play a role, could help right this history of social wrongs, and end police killings of unarmed Black people. Betty Joyce Nash reported for the Hendersonville Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record before moving to Virginia where she worked as an economics writer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. She co-edited Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, published in 2017 by the University of New Mexico Press; the anthology probes Americans’ complicated relationship to firearms. Betty Joyce Nash writes for Carolina Commentary. For more information, see www.bettyjoycenash.com

  • Nothing good ever happens after midnight

    There’s a saying in the sports world that nothing good ever happens after midnight. That’s because blue-chip recruits don’t call up a coach at 2 a.m. and commit to their program. No, the calls at 2 a.m. are usually to come bail somebody out of jail for getting in a fight after the bars close. We’re not talking about a bar brawl here. We are talking about doing anything in wee hours of the morning. Sober or not, it’s generally not a good idea. When it comes to legislating, it’s a really bad idea. Thus, as June rolled into July, we were treated to a spectacle in Raleigh over Senate Bill 168 marked by protests, arrests and a fair number of embarrassed faces in the General Assembly. SB 168 was supposed to be mundane legislation, referred to in lawmaker parlance as an “agency bill’’ to make technical corrections requested by the Department of Health and Human Services. What got passed appears to be quite different. The bill passed in a near-unanimous vote, with every legislator present in favor except one. In North Carolina laws that occur in jails, prisons or law enforcement custody must be reported to a county medical examiner. Public records laws exempt law enforcement investigations, but if investigations into deaths are passed to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, they become public record. SB 168 changes that, keeping those records from public scrutiny. The change was supposed to be a “clarification.” That’s a pretty big clarification. It opens the possibility that police car and bodycam video could be deemed as part of death investigations and be shielded. Currently such videos can be made public under court order. DHHS says it wanted the change because it would make law enforcement agencies less reluctant to turn over some records. Gov. Roy Cooper said, “I think most people don’t want to have that provision, and I think we’ll find a way to fix it.” Late Monday, Cooper vetoed the bill. When the history of the early years of the new millennium is written, the most important invention cited is likely to be the cell phone camera. Footage played by the public has proven invaluable in any number of cases where police abused their authority, and public cell phones have been the impetus for dashboard and body cameras becoming standard issue for peace officers. Such footage has helped sparked mass protests across the nation in recent weeks, galvanized by the gut-wrenching saga of George Floyd being essentially executed in broad daylight before a crowd of onlookers. North Carolina’s legislation provides an opportunity for all sorts of mischief by shielding the public’s eyes from official records. It does indeed need to be fixed. The public has taken notice. Leaders must follow. And in the future, legislators deciding on laws at 3 in the morning shouldn’t be reaching for the “vote’’ button. They should be reaching for a pillow. Nothing good happens after midnight. Jim Buchanan is the editor of The Sylvia Herald, former Editorial Page Editor for the Asheville Citizen-Times and writes for Carolina Commentary.

  • Carolina Commentary

    This month marks the third birthday for Carolina Commentary, a North Carolina-centric political blog dedicated to pursuing collaborative and realistic approaches to solving public policy issues. Virgil Smith, former president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times, formed Carolina Commentary with three of his former editorial page editors in recognition of the challenges facing the state’s media. Since then, we’ve shown our readers why they should care about specific threats to North Carolina’s system of democracy, its economy and justice for all. Our particular public policy topics include the environment, education, immigration and health care. And we’ve added additional writers–academics and other moderate progressives who hope to promote thoughtful debate that renounces ideology in favor of dialogue based on facts. What do we believe? Integrity: We commit to the highest standards in professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. We will be balanced, accurate and fair in our commentary. Quality: We will provide content that is thorough, fresh and innovative. Diversity: Our content will reflect the communities we serve, responsive to a diverse public. Service: Our content will be free from outside influence, political pressure or economic interests. Commentary: We will comment on issues of public interest. In the last year we’ve published 18 commentaries, including those that recommended solutions: To ensure protection of voting rights during the pandemic To provide equal access to education for all children statewide To encourage state government to use the pandemic to experiment with solutions to remedy structural ills What do we ask of you? Our thoughtful, bipartisan editorials are for sharing on any platform, whether it’s a newspaper, TV or radio website, political blog or social media site. So please, republish and share as you can. All we ask is that you attribute the content to Carolina Commentary and link to our site, www.carolinacommentary.com. Let’s keep the discussion going.

  • In order to form a more perfect union

    The protests taking place across our country give us an opportunity to change and live up to the values we espouse in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, the documents that have made us the world leader for democracy. To fulfill the principles of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, the nation’s citizens have sacrificed, protested and challenged leaders throughout our history. The Abolitionist Movement, the Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913, the Triangle Shirt Fire Protest in 1911, the March on Washington in 1963 and Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and the March on Washington in 1993 for LGBTQ rights are just some examples of this citizen activism. As a result, slavery ended, women gained the right to vote, labor laws were enacted, the Civil Rights Act passed and same-sex marriage became legal. The point is, we Americans have faced many, many challenges and have found a way to deal with the challenge and continue to lead the world as its strongest democracy. Where do we go from here? During a town hall meeting, President Obama told the nation that all major change has come with some unrest. Obama went on to say, “I want you to know that you matter, that your lives matter and that your dreams matter.” These are the upbeat and encouraging words we need to hear from our leaders. He sees, as we all do, the engagement of our nation’s diverse young people, who are outraged as are many Americans by what they saw, and are taking to the streets and are demanding police reform. Obama paints a picture of hope despite the despair we are living through during these turbulent times. The protests that are taking place across the nation and the world are the culmination of years of frustration with the systemic racism that has paralyzed the nation’s African-Americans who, as did their ancestors, have lived as second-class citizens. It is abhorrent that the world witnessed George Floyd killed in the videos shown on television and the Internet. This has triggered the emotional and justified response that we are witnessing. The anger and protests are clearly no excuse for the looters and criminals who are trying to hijack the legal and peaceful protests. We have to look past these individuals that are simply capitalizing on the nation’s grief. Despite the unrest that is captivating our consciousness and moral principles, we cannot forget what the current administration has done to Latinx children by separating them from their families. Many have not been reunited with their parents. This is also a shameful act of racism that is being done in front of our eyes. We cannot become complacent or treat this behavior by our government as an acceptable way to treat immigrants. All parents, regardless of their ethnicity, want the best for their children and their families. African-Americans and other minorities want the same thing as the White majority in America, an equal opportunity for justice, employment, educational opportunities and a safe life in America. African-Americans want to be able to tell their children to look for a police officer, as opposed to telling their children to not make any sudden moves and to show their hands at a traffic stop. It was warming to the heart to see police and protestors connecting with each other with hugs, taking a knee and in some cases marching together in places like Flint, Mich., Boston, New York, Atlanta and Santa Cruz. That is the heart of America and what makes our diversity the strength of the nation, despite the difficult traumatized history of race relations that have placed African Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians and Latinx in secondary status compared to White Americans in this country. We can and will get by the pandemic that has killed more Americans than all of its wars, with the exception of the Civil War and World Wars I & II. Despite the challenges facing the United States, America is a strong nation and is driven by the will of its people, who will demand police reform and political accountability, and will vote out leaders who do not place the country first. We have to believe in our values and live up to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which have guided us during the most difficult times over the past 244 years of our existence as a nation. Virgil L. Smith formerly served as president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times and Vice President for Human Resources for the Gannett Company. He is the principal for the Smith Edwards Group and writes for Carolina Commentary.