America's Best City Has Its Doubts

By Don Rollins

When your town is hailed as the best in the country, you’re exceptional. Maybe you didn’t lead the pack in every metric, but you had to come harder than some extra green space and upscale downtown watering holes. You had to have game.

That’s why it was a big deal around here when last September Raleigh was laureled as BusinessWeek’s 2011 pick as America’s Best City. To no one’s surprise, the whole Triangle Region more or less joined in the revelry.

But awards notwithstanding, the Triangle is no paradise. Statehouse Occupiers are coming in for as much travail as elsewhere. In a swipe at some of their most vulnerable citizens, both Raleigh and Durham now require panhandlers to register with photo ID and fixed address.

Since adopting a diversity program (including multi-cultural awareness and busing) in 2000, subsequent elections have resulted in the Wake County Public Schools’ board being effectively co-opted by a conservative agenda.

Under the guise of “neighborhood schools,” that agenda has become the driving force behind what amounts to re-segregation. The idea is devastatingly simple: Stop the busing. In support of the changes, the conservatives have amassed a cadre of heavy right-wing hitters, including the ever-present Koch brothers and deep-pocketed North Carolina businessman/kingmaker, Art Pope. Their efforts have been robust to say the least. But there’s been an equally robust response. The NAACP has made headway with a court injunction to stay the plan. The Obama Administration stepped in with a civil rights investigation.

Rank and file, mad-as-hell parents and educators have tirelessly worked as para-community activists and ad hoc campaign organizers.

And best of all, three of the five board conservatives were defeated in an early October election.

So things are looking up. The remaining hurdle comes in the form of a November runoff between the Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger. All indications are that the Dem will carry the day. If all goes as predicted, Wake County’s schools will continue to be a force for reversing pervasive economic, racial and cultural apartheid.

But either way, there’ll be the usual parsing over what if any meaning this has beyond diversity in a swell place to live. To date, some progressive presidential analyses of Wake County’s school board skirmish treat it as an encouraging proxy dust-up in a swing state. But liberals should be careful with any excessive extrapolation about Raleigh and North Carolina 2012. As Joe Louis said, the round is not the fight. And America’s Best City may turn out to be exceptional in ways we’d rather not think about.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Raleigh, N.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2011

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