What  the General Assembly Needs to do to Address Systemic Racism


These are incredibly challenging times for all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing unprecedented health and financial hardships for so many of our friends and neighbors — and many of us as well. The killing of George Floyd has unleashed an outpouring of anguish and anger over countless episodes of violence and murder committed against brown and black people. And it has started a reckoning over 400 years of oppression and systemic racism.

It is easy to feel despair when it seems like the country is breaking apart around us.

But in times like this, I cling to hope.

Because if we do not have hope, we cannot act.

My job outside of the North Carolina General Assembly is as a racial equity consultant with schools across the country. I spend my days supporting schools’ efforts to address the needs of black and brown students. And over the last two weeks it has felt like my worlds are colliding.  It is so difficult to address systemic racism in our educational system, and even more so in our political system.

Yet, at the same time I have felt hopeful over the past two weeks.  My legislative colleagues have been discussing how to address systemic racism in ways that, for once, make me feel like there is an opportunity for real, lasting change. House Democrats compiled an agenda for addressing systemic racism. A senior Republican leader asked me to join him to work on criminal justice and policing reforms. And in a show of bi-partisan cooperation, the NC House passed the Second Chance Act, which makes it easier for non-violent offenders who have served their time to get jobs and housing.

But these few examples are simply not enough. This crisis has been centuries in the making and there are so many things that need to be done.  It is long past time to act. We must not wait any longer.  We must act now.  The General Assembly is in session right now, and while Democrats are in the minority we are eager to reach across the aisle to colleagues who have open minds and full hearts.

For years Democrats have proposed bills that address systemic racism. It is my fervent hope that a window has opened for us to find bi-partisan opportunities to enact them. Here are some specific issues we can work on:

Addressing Educational and Health Care Disparities

  •     Expanding Medicaid will help everyone, but it will particularly benefit African-American communities.  African-American babies are twice as likely as white babies to die in infancy.  A recent study proved that rates of prematurity and low infant birth weight improved in Medicaid Expansion states and did not improve in states like North Carolina that have refused expansion. HB1040
  •     COVID-19 hits African-American communities harder as well.  39 percent of all COVID-19 deaths are African-American, even though these citizens comprise only 22 percent of the population.  We need to target resources toward protecting vulnerable individuals and front-line workers (who are more likely to be people of color).  HB 1117, HB 1085, HB 1057
  •     Public education is at the heart of the fight against racism.  In our state, every student has a right to a sound, basic education.  Our courts have recognized this right in the Leandro court decisions.  Yet school funding in poorer areas of the state lags far behind that of more affluent ones. We cannot afford any more lost time to make the investments necessary to provide all students a basic education.  We have two bills, HB 1129 and HB 1130 that take important steps to implement the recommendations of a blue-ribbon study outlining what needs to be done to serve ALL students.

Other important opportunities to help our fellow citizens include:

Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Reform

  •     Citizen Review Commission bills to empower communities to require greater accountability from their police forces (HB 916, HB 465)
  •     Reforms to rehabilitate criminals who have paid their debts to society (HB 284, HB 202, HB 132, HB 121)
  •     Ban the Box bills, which make it easier for rehabilitated criminals to get jobs (HB 1077, HB 834, HB 46)
  •     Reforming how drivers’ licenses are revoked so that rehabilitated criminals can access jobs (HB 853, HB 909)

Addressing Economic Disparities

  •     Equal Pay for Equal Work to eliminate discrimination in pay(SB 486)
  •     Minimum Wage Increase to ensure that no one who works full time has to be impoverished (HB 146, HB 359, HB 366)
  •     Paid Leave for illnesses or caring for family members, so crucial in this time of COVID-19 (HB 1046, HB 696)
  •     Unemployment Reform so that folks who have lost their jobs can clothe, feed, and house themselves and their families(HB 1075, HB 1061)

I know there will not be bi-partisan will to enact all of these bills this year. And I know that ending systemic racism that has endured for centuries cannot be undone by a single legislature. But I also know that we can no longer wait to act. I choose hope because I believe this is the moment for change.

Graig Meyer is the State Representative for House District 50, covering portions of Orange and Caswell Counties. He can be contacted at graig.meyer@ncleg.net.

This article originally appeared in the News of Orange and Caswell Messenger.