Speaking or writing about diversity in a religious context often makes me feel like I am channeling the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth imploring those who profess to know God to “let everything you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:14 – Amplified). Far too often, religion is wielded in divisive and hurtful ways rather than in ways reflective of God’s love for us and the love that God has called us to give others. Denominational doctrine and individual interpretation sometimes lead to the same kind of division that characterized Corinth early in the first century. The Corinthian Christians were separating and identifying themselves by their affiliation with particular religious leaders and deciding for themselves who was welcome in God’s kingdom. Lines were being drawn and determinations made about those who did not belong. In effect, the diversity of thought within the church was becoming a barrier to creating community with one another in Christ.
Yet Paul admonished this behavior. In 1 Cor. 12:13-27, Paul teaches that God sees his creation of diversity as a reflection of intentional diversity within the body of Christ. He states in 1 Cor. 12:21-23 (NIV) “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty.”
A reasonable extension of Paul’s sentiment is that anyone who has been baptized in the Spirit, anyone who accepts God through Jesus Christ, is part of the one Holy body. Paul’s letter affirms this: “For we are all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we are all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many” (1 Cor. 12:13-14).
Given what the Apostle Paul taught, a logical extrapolation is that our human assessment of who is less important and who is a lesser member of the body of Christ is often simply not in alignment with God’s understanding. This section of Apostle Paul’s letter provides a biblical context for the issues underpinning the economic boycott of North Carolina announced earlier this year by Rev. Dr. William Barber, President of the NC Chapter of the NAACP, and keynote speaker at our upcoming Annual Convention in Charlotte. It also provides the foundation for the difficult conversations undertaken by the NACSW Board of Directors which ultimately led to the decision to move forward with the Convention in North Carolina despite the boycott.
Reasons for the North Carolina Boycott
At the heart of the boycott was North Carolina’s heavily partisan legislative action on March 23, 2016 when they passed the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, commonly known as House Bill 2 or HB2. The legislation was passed during a special session of the General Assembly after allowing legislators only five minutes to review the bill and only thirty minutes for public comment. Nationally the law was known as “the bathroom bill” because it required, among other things, that people use restrooms in government facilities (including schools, parks, and state-owned buildings) which corresponded to the gender on their birth certificate rather than their gender identity. This meant that the law was placing members of the transgender community, especially those who are in a lower socioeconomic position, in a perilous situation because the only way to change one’s gender on a birth certificate in North Carolina is to have gender reassignment surgery, which can be a financial burden.
This was not, however, the only component of HB2 that many felt was discriminatory. Less well known were provisions that local governments could not enact anti-discrimination policies such as protecting workers from employment discrimination based on race, gender, gender identity, and religion; raising a local minimum wage to meet the economic needs of workers; or regulating paid family leave. In this way, private businesses were essentially able to deny or limit employment of anyone who represented “the other,” which had a potential impact on almost everyone in the labor market including women, people of color, people with disabilities, and people of various religious faith traditions. In a post-9/11 America, it seems pretty safe to say that Muslims would not fare well under such conditions. Veterans could also be discriminated against in the workplace under HB2, which is appalling in its own right, but certainly all the more so when one considers that North Carolina is home to five military bases including Ft. Bragg, which is the largest base in any branch of the military (it had over 53,000 soldiers on base in 2015).
For those victimized by this bill, the options for recourse were minimal because the bill, which was passed and signed into law in only eleven hours by then-Governor Pat McCrory, also made it impossible to sue at the state level for employment discrimination, requiring instead that lawsuits be filed at the federal level. For many, limiting access to the state court system to defend oneself against employment discrimination is not only governmental overreach, but violates the rights of citizens in North Carolina.
One could argue that the entirety of House Bill 2 was sufficient grounds for the NAACP, led locally by a man of faith, to call for a boycott as a means of redress. However, another contributing reason to the boycott was North Carolina’s racially-drawn (gerrymandered) congressional voting districts and voter suppression tactics. In August 2016, North Carolina was found guilty (for the second time) of voter suppression because of its Voter Integrity law that cut early voting, cut same-day voter registration, denied 17-year olds the right to pre-register, and determined that neither college IDs nor federal IDs were valid for voter registration. There are 140 colleges and universities in North Carolina serving over 350,000 college students who would be ineligible to vote in the state using their student ID card – a practice that was in place previously. In May 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina lawmakers “relied on race too much” when drawing their district lines – a decision that was surprisingly supported by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.
Still another legislative action leading to Rev. Barber’s call for an economic boycott was the hastily passed SB4 in the wake of Republican Governor McCrory’s failed re-election bid. The law, passed during a one-day special session of the state legislature in December 2016 – that was supposed to provide aid to victims of Hurricane Matthew – limited the power of the incoming Governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, to make his own cabinet appointments.
Taken together, many felt that the climate of North Carolina evidenced division and discord among opposing political factions with the party in power using it to harm the ones who were “the other.” Ironically, as Rev. Barber pointed out, many of the people who voted in favor of HB2 and SB4 only won their seats as a result of racialized voting districts. When Rev. Barber called for the boycott, he stated, “all you’re supposed to do with power is do right.”
Impact of the Boycott
Many people around the country agreed that the discriminatory political actions of the NC GOP were patently unfair and ultimately economists estimate that the boycott cost North Carolina around $500 million in economic losses as well as approximately 1,400 jobs when companies like PayPal, slated to move to North Carolina, pulled out. From major sports franchises like the NCAA and NBA to major entertainers like Bruce Springsteen, the list of boycott supporters who cancelled their scheduled events/concerts because of HB2 alone is considerable. While some proponents of HB2 argue that the fiscal impact was negligible (accounting for around 1/10th of the state’s overall economy), small business owners and their employees were severely impacted by the loss of revenue particularly from the large sporting events. The state’s reputation also suffered because of what to many was a discriminatory law which made the state a less-attractive place to live, work, and visit.
I know firsthand that the NACSW Board is comprised of dedicated, hard-working, thoughtful social workers who are led by the Holy Spirit to do what we believe is right and just in the midst of tumult. While we do not always agree, we always try to keep God, the membership, and the larger society at the forefront of our decisions. When we convened to discuss the best course of action in light of the boycott, the air was heavy with deep contemplation because, despite our role as Board members and the decision-making power we had, truly there seemed no clear and obvious “right thing to do.”
After every path had been thoughtfully and prayerfully considered, our decision was to keep the conference in North Carolina and to use the conference as a means of educating NACSW members and friends about the salient issues underlying the boycott, and to generate healthy conversation and dialogue among the membership regarding the way faith impacts how we think about and respond to these critical issues. For me, this decision represented a way to stand up to those who would marginalize individuals and families for their own political gain and to stand up for workers’ rights, civil rights, and human rights. For me, it offered an opportunity to be a Christian and social worker who meets prejudice, inequality, and discrimination head on. For me it meant that NACSW would bring God’s love and light into a space that was mired in darkness for thousands of people across North Carolina. Though it was not an easy decision for the Board, since we risked alienating members who supported the economic boycott, I believe our decision aligns with the Apostle Paul’s words – “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). The NACSW Board chose to keep its conference in NC and in so doing help its membership better understand and wrestle with laws and practices that many feel are unjust and contribute to human suffering.
At the time of this writing, HB2 has been repealed and replaced with HB142 which many feel continues to be discriminatory against members of the LGBTQ community, so for many of us, the fight for fairness goes on in North Carolina.
Kimberly Hardy is an assistant professor of social work at Fayetteville State University, a member of NACSW’s Board of Directors, the chair of NACSW’s Diversity Committee, and a member of NACSW since 2010.