Magazine article The New Yorker

Opening Doors

Magazine article The New Yorker

Opening Doors

Article excerpt


The current circumstances in North Carolina--a tableau of states'-rights populism, an embattled minority seeking equality, a conflict over who is allowed to use public facilities, and a Southern governor committed to resisting federal executive authority--warrant a reversal of a familiar adage: everything new is old again. In March, Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill, known as HB2, that requires people in North Carolina to use the public rest room that corresponds to the sex indicated on their birth certificate. The response was swift. PayPal cancelled plans to build an operations center in Charlotte. Twenty conventions pulled out of the state. Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, among others, cancelled concerts. The governors of Connecticut, Vermont, and New York issued restrictions on state employees travelling to North Carolina on official business.

In 1960, when four students launched a sit-in to protest segregation at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, the local impact was minimal. It took the ripple of boycotts targeting Woolworth stores across the country to turn the protest into a national matter. The impact of this new law on the tiny slice of the population that it targets has yet to be determined, but it has already been remarkably successful in turning North Carolina into one long Woolworth's counter. This element of past-as-prologue was made explicit earlier this month, when Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Justice Department was bringing suit against North Carolina for violating federal civil-rights law. Four days later, President Obama issued a directive to public schools to allow students to use the rest room corresponding to their gender identity.

It was not so long ago that states, including North Carolina, posted signs on rest rooms, water fountains, and other public accommodations as part of a policy to exclude people on the basis of a distinction without a difference. We have progressed beyond those dark days, but not without a constant fight. This time, states should act not out of fear and misunderstanding but out of the values of inclusion, diversity, and regard for all which truly make America great.

Consider the political implications of an African-American woman, the first to hold the office of Attorney General, informing a white governor that his state's policy toward the transgender population is reminiscent of the days of de-facto racial discrimination. North Carolina--with its banking center in Charlotte, its substantial black middle class, and its elite universities--esteems its identity as part of a South too forward-looking to be defined by bygone bigotries. Lynch called that premise into question. She could have taken the point further: North Carolina was more than willing to countenance "all-gender" bathrooms when they served the purposes of racial segregation. Jim Crow legislation culminated in separate bathrooms for white men and white women, but only a single "colored" rest room for African-Americans, whatever their gender.

McCrory, who is locked in a close reelection battle and hopes to galvanize social conservatives, responded to Lynch by declaring that "both the federal courts and the U.S. Congress must intercede to stop this massive executive branch overreach, which clearly oversteps constitutional authority. …

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