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N.C. Senate debate gets dicey when candidates talk race

fr davisN.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, is known for his direct and unapologetic communication style, but it landed him in hot water with some audience members at a debate held at Western Carolina University last week.

Davis made a reference during the debate to the large percentage of African-American children born to unwed mothers, which in turn made them more likely than the general population to end up in jail.

Davis had been asked about the Racial Justice Act, a Democratic initiative that pre-dated his first term in the legislature. At issue: whether a disproportional number of African-Americans land in prison or get harsher sentences due in part to racial profiling, and whether black death row inmates in particular were due a case review.

“I agree that we shouldn’t convict somebody based on the color of their skin or the language they speak. But as far as black males being incarcerated, for Pete’s sake, 72 percent of all black children that are born in this country are born to an unwed mother. You know, 72 percent,” Davis said. 

Many in the audience gasped in disbelief. A wave of murmurs swept through the crowd but only for an instant. The room quickly fell silent — perhaps the most quiet it had been all night — to hear where Davis was going next with the statement.

SEE ALSO: Audience turns political debate into rousing spectator sportA drive-by version of the N.C. Senate debate

SEE ALSO: Watch the debate, courtesy of the Canary Coalition

“And consequently, when you have a break down of the  home, these young men don’t grow up with a father figure so they are more inclined to be a burden on the education system, on public safety and public health. That’s a real problem,” Davis said.

The statement has caused a stir following the debate.

“It is racism at its worst,” said Luke Hyde from Bryson City, head of a 15-county chapter of the Democratic Party in WNC.

Leila Tvedt, also a Bryson City Democrat in the audience, said the statement was “idiotic” and insulted single mothers of all races.

“I don’t think the fact you come from a single-parent home predisposes you to crime,” Tvedt said.

When asked to respond to the criticism, Davis said he can’t help it if people took his comments the wrong way.

“I can’t control how people reacted to what I said. Some people go out of their way to be offended,” Davis said. “It is irreverent. It is like Martin Luther King said, ‘It is your character that matters.’”

Further, he said the term racist was being used incorrectly.

“Racism is probably not the term you mean. What you are probably talking about is bigotry or prejudice,” Davis said. “Racism means that one race is superior to another. Scientifically it is not proven that one race is superior to another.”

While Davis said the statement should simply be taken at face value. But the comment at the forum went over like a ton of bricks with many in the audience.

“I wasn’t offended, because I was just so shocked. There was a gasp that went out through the room,” Cheyenne Graham, an African-American WCU student, said after the forum.

“It was a shock kind of thing,” agreed Darren Blackwell, also an African-American WCU student. “I was like, ‘He just said that?’” 

Trevor James, a senior majoring in communications, said the statement was in poor form.

“It is definitely not something I would have said on stage in front of a lot of people on T.V.,” said James, who is also African-American. “It says something about his character. He said some other things that were suspect.”

One African-American woman was so upset by the comment, she confronted Davis after the forum and called him a racial slur for a white person.


A real world problem

Davis said he should not be taken to task for stating a real-life statistic. Further, he doesn’t shy away from talking about a societal issue just because it is uncomfortable.

“You should know me well enough to know that I am not politically correct. I go where the data is,” Davis said after the debate.

To be clear, Davis is concerned about the societal implications of the growing number of single-parent households across all races.

“No ethnic group has any bragging points on that issue — none,” Davis said. “There is no substitute for an intact loving family unit with a father and mother.”

But, it is simply a fact, he said, that a larger percentage of African-American children are born to unwed mothers.

Davis said in an interview “those mothers, for the most part, have doomed” their children with fewer opportunities for success in life. Kids from a single-parent home are statistically at a greater risk of not graduating from school, of getting in trouble and going to prison.

After Davis’ statement at the debate connecting the dots between the high rate of unwed black mothers and the high rate of African-Americans in prison, all eyes turned to Davis’ opponent, Jane Hipps, D-Waynesville.

“You have one minute to respond,” the moderator said.

Hipps didn’t reply directly to what Davis had just said, but instead laid out a contrasting philosophy.

“As a school counselor and a nurse practitioner, I think we have a responsibility to children who come from a broken home or unstable background,” Hipps said. “You know, 25 percent of our children in this district are hungry or below the poverty level. We need to look for ways to take care of people. We have that responsibility. If they aren’t getting it at home, we need to teach them to read, we need to feed them, we need to educate them.”

Davis believes in individual responsibility and that people should be accountable for their choices. Unfortunately, Davis said Democrats’ solution is for the government to step in and “take care of people,” as Hipps attested in her comments.

“The government does not have enough resources to solve all these problems. We need to quit incentivizing these behaviors as we have for the past 50 years,” Davis said. “I think when we enable people we enslave them to the government and I think government should empower people.”


A long night

Leading up to the statement that caused such a stir, the candidates had been asked specifically about the Racial Justice Act, a past Democratic initiative aimed at reviewing death penalty cases for racial bias. Hipps believes racial profiling is real. She believes it plays some role in the abnormally high percentage of African-American men accused of crimes.

“We don’t need to be racially profiling. We need to be a country that accepts all of our people. That’s not right,” Hipps said.

Davis suggested racial profiling is a scapegoat and a trumped-up excuse used by criminals trying to escape justice.

“More than 90 percent of black males who commit a crime are committing crimes against other blacks. That is not racial profiling. They are victims of blacks — same color,” Davis said.

Following the debate, Hipps said Davis’ comment was “disparaging” and showed a “lack of understanding and sensitivity.” She said the comment was symptomatic of Davis’ being “out of touch.”

Hipps took Davis to task over his choice of words during the debate itself as well.

During an exchange over the Republican-led teacher salary increases handed out this year, Davis questioned why teachers aren’t more grateful for the sizeable pay increase they got.

“I am so frustrated with these teachers who never seem to be happy. We dedicated $282 million to teacher raises — an average of 7.2 percent. We are well on our way,” Davis said. “If you are a teacher and you don’t understand numbers, I don’t know what you are doing teaching in the classroom.”

When the floor was turned back over to Hipps, she asked any teachers in the audience to raise their hand.

“My opponent just referred to you as ‘these’ teachers. In the last debate he referred to children as ‘those’ children,” Hipps said. Hipps insinuated that Davis was labeling.

But that is partly Davis’ speech style. He often uses the word “these” or “those” when referring to a group or subset of society.

Hipps makes a point of using the word “our.” She referred during the debate to “our children,” “our teachers” and “our people.”

WCU Junior Connor Hicks, a communications major at WCU, said he’s learned as a communications major that you don’t use words like “those” to refer to sectors of society.

Another awkward moment in the debate emerged during a discussion of immigration. Davis said immigration is a federal issue, not a state issue. But, he added, the borders should be more tightly controlled.

“We may have some Arabs coming through there that may do us harm,” Davis said.

That wasn’t a popular statement either with Davis’ critics. 

“One thing that bothers me is we all have certain rights as human beings. Respect is something we are due,” said Joan Mackey, a Democrat in Haywood County, speaking in the lobby following the debate.

But given how polarized the audience was from the get go — most wore their affiliation on their sleeve with buttons, stickers, shirts or pins — it’s unlikely many voters were going to be swayed one way or the other that night anyway.

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