“My opponent’s racist,” said Madison Cawthorn, Republican nominee for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District. “White liberals are the most racist people I’ve ever met in my entire life. They define everything by race. They want people to be able to get into college with lower grades and lower school scores simply because they are African American. That’s insane. That is saying, ‘Hey, you know what? Don’t work so hard, because you’re African American, because you probably just can’t do it.’ Are you kidding me? That’s the most racist thing I’ve ever heard.”
Cawthorn’s opponent, Asheville Democrat Moe Davis, issued a response illustrative of the fierce division over a long-overdue racial reckoning in the United States.
“Clearly, our history is one where you can’t deny the fact that we kidnapped people and brought them here to this country and treated them like we would treat cattle. They were bought and sold. Their labor was largely responsible for building a lot of this country,” said Davis. “I think that the reparations bill that Asheville passed is just saying Asheville is going to try to treat everyone fairly and make sure that everybody gets an equal shot. If that makes me racist, then my opponent’s right — I must be a racist because I think everybody should be treated fairly.”
Cawthorn and Davis do share some common ground on the contemporary issues swirling about America’s racial divide, but voters are more likely to scrutinize their differences — nuanced, or not — on what’s become an emotional conversation in a district that has a relatively low Black population, but has seen plenty of demonstrations calling for economic, racial and social justice.
A resolution passed by the Asheville City Council July 14 cites the unjust enslavement, segregation and incarceration of Black people, as well as racist housing, employment, economic development and educational practices as reasons that the city “apologizes and makes amends” for its participation and enforcement of such practices.
Passed unanimously, the resolution calls on both state and federal governments to provide funding for reparations and also directs Asheville’s city manager to establish within a year a developmental process for “short, medium and long-term recommendations to specifically address the creation of generational wealth and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community.”
Asheville isn’t the first to take such action. The California Assembly passed a similar bill more than a month ago — something the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America has been calling for since its incorporation in 1987.
Since Asheville’s resolution, a number of other municipalities have followed suit; the City of Providence, Rhode Island, took action just two days later and a task force in Durham issued a report to the Durham City Council July 23 with similar recommendations.
Cawthorn first expressed his views on reparations in an essay he authored July 16 for Ben Shapiro’s conservative outlet The Daily Wire, the title of which postulates that reparations will divide instead of heal the country.
“The reason why I think this is so offensive and so dangerous is because it’s saying that a generation of people, an entire civilization of people who have never owned a slave, who have never even been slaves, are now being put into this category to where they think they need to have a hand me down,” Cawthorn told The Smoky Mountain News July 25. “I have a 50 percent African American fiancé, and so my children will be biracial, and I do not want them to have the mindset that they are a victim and that they deserve to have anything handed to them, because I think that you get what you work for in this country.”
The death toll of the American Civil War, in which 360,000 Union and 260,000 Confederate soldiers died, also counts as a significant effort toward racial equality, according to Cawthorn.
“That is astounding — 600,000 Americans gave their life to free slaves and you’re going to tell me that’s not enough? You know, I know so many incredible African American men and women who are the best of our entire country, who have risen above the hatred and things that they have to deal with,” he said. “I don’t believe that reparations are necessary because I believe America already paid the price for their freedom.”
The concept of government-sanctioned reparations is not unprecedented and can be thought of as somewhat analogous to Kennedy-era Affirmative Action programs under the U.S. Department of Labor that were fostered through the 1990s by Democrats, until constitutional challenges began to chip away at their legitimacy.
“As I just said earlier, the greatest people I know in this country are Black men and women who have risen above, having to go up against the difficulties they have, very similar to me and my life, growing up against the difficulties I’ve had. And you know what? They don’t want a freaking handout. They don’t want to have people say, ‘Hey, you only got into Harvard because you’re Black.’ That’s insane. That’s racist. And to any liberals that are listening to this right now, you are a racist.”
Understandably taking umbrage to the 24-year-old Cawthorn calling him a racist is Davis.
“I stand on my record. I have a record. I’ll be 62 years old next week. I spent 25 years in the military. I’m the one that spent four years teaching at a historically Black college and university, at Howard. I’m the one that went three years to a historically Black university, to law school. So I’ve got seven years in the HBCU community,” he said. “My opponent was homeschooled, never went to college, never went to law school, has never worked outside of this area.”
Davis retired from the U.S. Air Force as a colonel, after serving as a prosecutor in terrorist trials at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. He also served as an administrative law judge at the U.S. Department of Labor.
“One of the last decisions I wrote was Department of Labor v. Enterprise Rental Car of Baltimore. It ended up being the largest racial discrimination verdict in the history of the Department of Labor,” he said. “It was [about] Black applicants for entry into the management training program at Enterprise.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising Davis would cite that decision, which resulted in a judgement of more than $16 million against the Maryland-based federal contractor Enterprise while also demonstrating what systemic inequality looks like in legal and financial terms.
Just as the concept of reparations could be compared to Affirmative Action, Davis says another model might be the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed during the administration of President George H.W. Bush in 1990.
“We’re celebrating the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which says that people with disabilities, we’ve got to give them accommodations and an equal opportunity to participate both in employment and in daily life. It’s been 30 years now that we’ve been doing that,” he said. “I remember when the ADA was first passed, we were going, ‘Oh, this is going to cost businesses money and it’s going to be a burden.’ It’s become an accepted part of life. It’s leveling the playing field for folks that have a disadvantage.”
As to Cawthorn’s assertions about the Civil War, Davis downplays the idea that it was a be-all, end-all solution to the horrific treatment of enslaved Blacks in America.
“When the war ended it was not like racism just disappeared,” he said. “It took on different forms, like many of the statues that we’ve been debating about here recently were put up not at the end of the war, they were put up decades later — kind of as a middle finger to the backlash from trying to treat folks equally.”
The topic of Confederate imagery leads Davis and Cawthorn to an unlikely junction, where the Democrat and the Republican are both moving in the same direction.
Davis said he was pleased that the National Defense Authorization Act, approved July 23, included a provision that passed the Senate with a veto-proof majority removing Confederate names from military installations.
“Whether it’s naming a base, or a monument honoring Confederates, I mean, clearly the Confederates wanted not a United States, they wanted a dis-United States,” Davis said. “They wanted to leave the country. Um, so why are we honoring them?”
An eighth-generation resident of Western North Carolina, Cawthorn says his ancestors fought for the Union and that he too feels Confederate imagery represents a people that waged war on the United States.
“We don’t have any statues up of King George,” Cawthorn said. “Why would we build monuments to people who attack the United States of America? You read the articles of secession, the number one reason that they are going to war, and it says it very plainly, is ‘because we believe in state’s rights.’ That’s where most people say, ‘Oh, well, the War of Northern Aggression was because of states rights.’ Read the rest of the sentence — ‘the state’s rights to slavery.’ You cannot read the same Bible that I read and think it’s OK to enslave a man.”
But here’s where they veer apart again, into well-charted party positioning; Cawthorn is quick to point out — correctly so — that the majority of Confederates were Democrats.
“I will tell you that the Southern Democrats — and let me emphasize, they are Democrats — they seceded from the Union and then they created a new country and they went to war with the United States of America,” he said. “I just can’t. I can’t endorse that. I can see why [Democrats] might want to erase that part of their history.”
Indeed, Democrats exercised a stranglehold on power in the post-bellum South, enforcing Jim Crow laws and segregation for decades. The first post-Reconstruction governor in the core Confederacy states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia came in the latter, with voters selecting Republican Linwood Holton as Virginia governor in 1970.
North Carolina followed in 1973 with James Holshouser, South Carolina got James B. Edwards in 1975 and Alabama didn’t get its first post-Reconstruction Republican governor until 1986. Georgia elected current Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue as governor in 2003.
Davis says that social programs like the “Great Society” reform package — of which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was part — flipped the script on political party affiliation.
“I think anyone that was alive back during the 1960s like I was remembers that after LBJ and the whole Civil Rights movement, the parties basically swapped and Democrats became Republicans and Republicans became Democrats,” he said. “I hear that quite often — that all these old racist guys, they were Democrats, [but] they wouldn’t be Democrats today.”
How and by whom discussions about reparations like those in Asheville, Durham and Providence should be handled shows both candidates again diametrically opposed and entrenched in party principle, with Davis favoring the pragmatism of federal standardization, and Cawthorn favoring the principle of local control.
“I don’t think that the federal government should weigh in like that whatsoever,” said Cawthorn. “I will tell you that I think that state and local municipalities should be completely free. I believe in state rights. I think there’s too much centralized power in the federal government and, you know, I might disagree with what the city of Asheville did, but you know what, there’s something that we have coming up in November where people can vote.
“I think it’s probably better handled at a federal level,” Davis said. “It shouldn’t be a county option on how we address this issue. This is a nationwide issue. I think it ought to be addressed uniformly, rather than depending on what city or county or state you’re in, you get a different outcome. I think the real hard question for me is what do we mean by reparations? How do we strike the balance to achieve a result that a majority of Americans would agree as an equitable resolution?”