UNCG Historian: Greensboro Bill Defies NC History of Local Control
Omar Ali, a historian at UNC Greensboro who specializes in African-American issues, has been watching a bill that would restructure Greensboro’s city government, which has cleared the state Senate and this week heads to the House.
Although he says he remains neutral on the proposed Greensboro restructuring, he worries about the possible racial and historic implications of gerrymandering, and he questions the intent of those who are seeking those changes.
The measure is sponsored by Guilford County Republican Senator Trudy Wade. Among other things it would redraw the political boundaries of the city and trim the council from nine to seven people.
"I think, quite frankly, the more voices in the process the better," he says "Why wouldn't we welcome more voices?"
The bill has both supporters and opponents in Greensboro's black community. It's led to a public rift between Melvin "Skip" Alston - a former county commissioner who sits on the Executive Committee of the Greensboro NAACP - and the state NAACP. Alston has spoken in favor of the bill, while the state NAACP opposes it.
Ali says it's a myth that the black community is politically homogeneous. In fact, he says, there is a broad spectrum of political beliefs across the black community.
Ali adds that the Greensboro bill runs counter to the state's history of local control that dates back to the the populists of the 1890s.
"This was an alliance of African-Americans and white independents. They basically pushed for more local representation instead of having the governor pick from the position in Raleigh," he says.
Ali says the split between Alston and the state NAACP shows that people are willing to take a stand on important issues, and he sees that as a sign of a healthy democracy.
"I learned long ago that controversy is not a negative thing, it's a good thing," he says.
Ali says it would be better if a referendum were held locally. Wade's bill does not include a local referendum and a proposal to have one was defeated before the senate passed the measure. But Ali says a referendum would only work if voters truly believed their voices mattered.
"I think the issue of putting things on the ballot is better than simply having elected officials try to dictate policy. I think I would favor that any day," he says. "But the point here is that unless we have a more meaningful electoral system that people can have faith in - that what they try to vote on will make change - then I think these ballot initiatives are very limited."
Ali is also on the board of independentvoting.org, which advocates for non-partisan political reform. He says that the political parties are exerting too much control over the political process, and it will take people willing to work outside of the parties to come together to make change. Otherwise, he says, politicians will continue working to consolidate their political power.
"I think it's mostly about political opportunism," he says.