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In Chief Justice Beasley’s loss, race again played a troubling role

Published in The News & Observer on December 27, 2020

Written by Virginia L. Summey

On May 9, 1974 Greensboro District Court Judge Elreta Alexander received a letter from attorney, E.S. Schlosser, Jr. He wrote, “I am sorry, truly sorry. I don’t understand, but I am afraid I do understand. I am sorry.”

Judge Alexander, the first African-American woman to graduate from Columbia Law and the first to practice law in North Carolina, had just lost the Republican primary in the North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice race. She lost to James Newcomb, a white, fire-extinguisher salesman without a college degree. The Salisbury Post attributed Alexander’s loss to “racism, sexism, or gross ignorance.”

Forty-five years later, on March 7, 2019, Cheri Beasley became the first AfricanAmerican woman sworn in as North Carolina’s chief justice, appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper. Beasley achieved what Alexander had not; she reached the highest judicial office in the state. But over one month after the 2020 election, Beasley trailed challenger Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, by 401 votes before conceding the election on Dec. 12. North Carolina voters denied a black women an electoral victory yet again.

There are many differences between the 1974 and 2020 elections. The election in 1974 fell between presidential elections, resulting in lower turnout. Additionally, the hardening of party lines had not yet solidified, as the exodus of white conservatives from the Democratic to Republican parties was not yet complete. The biggest difference, however, is that Newby is undoubtedly qualified for the Chief Justice position. A graduate of the University of North Carolina Law School, he has served on the North Carolina Supreme Court since 2004.

But Newby remains a beneficiary of the same forces that defeated Judge Elreta Alexander. The 1974 election came during a transitional time in North Carolina politics, and the Supreme Court race, combined with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, solidified the Republican Party as one antagonistic towards civil rights issues.

Throughout his tenure on the court, the state Republican Party has endorsed Newby’s reelection campaigns. When Beasley was sworn in last year as chief justice, Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger criticized the move, citing “decades-old precedent” as the reason why Newby should have been appointed instead. In my opinion, Berger and the Republicans preferred a chief justice who reflected their politics and demographics – that of a conservative, white male. Cooper, however, did not break “tradition,” by appointing a Democrat, as gubernatorial appointments to fill judicial positions are hardly nonpartisan. But as the 1974 election highlights, the political establishment also has a dubious history with African-American women and electoral politics.

The 2020 election begets the same question of conservative voters in North Carolina as it did in 1974: What are you voting for? North Carolina voters yet again denied an African-American woman an electoral win for the state’s highest judicial post. But this question extends beyond the chief justice race. President Trump, with his refusal to denounce white supremacy, also eked out victory in the state, winning its 15 electoral college votes. The 2020 election in North Carolina, as the Salisbury Post said in 1974, will likely be a result of “racism, sexism, or gross ignorance.”

Of course, many conservative voters will not openly admit that race and the Republican Party’s racialized rhetoric influenced their vote. But we also see that, according to the News & Observer’s own analysis that Newby challenged the ballots of Black voters at almost three times the rate of white voters. Like Attorney Schlosser wrote to Judge Alexander in 1974, we don’t understand, but I’m afraid we do understand.