In North Carolina, a concession to politics, and maybe also to the hopes of history
Jeff Jackson did something politicians rarely do last week. He bowed out of a race he could win.
Jackson, a state lawmaker from Charlotte, was involved in one of the most-watched political battles in the country: the race for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina. The Republican primary is already a cage match. Our most recent ex-president endorsed U.S. Rep. Ted Budd over former Gov. Pat McCrory, and a conservative lobbying group followed up by sending out an anti-McCrory mailer the size of an IKEA catalog. In return, McCrory tweeted that he once “deployed the National Guard when Antifa tried to take over.” Nobody else knows what he’s talking about, either.
On the Democratic side, things were quieter. Jackson was running against Cheri Beasley, former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. They emphasized their own strengths instead of their opponent’s flaws. But there was an unavoidable tension underneath, because Beasley is a Black woman, and Jackson is a white man.
Only two Black women in our history have been U.S. senators. No matter what you think of her politics, Beasley is clearly qualified to become the third. So here’s the thorny question: Even if you like Jackson — even if you think he’d be a better senator — is that more important than making the Senate more diverse?
This, of course, is not just a question about the Senate. It’s about all kinds of jobs in American life, from welders to flight attendants to football coaches. For centuries, our society held back qualified minorities and women. Who knows how many Einsteins we lost, how many Lincolns, how many Neil Armstrongs, because the dominant white male culture didn’t give anyone else a chance.
The first part of the equation is changing our laws and attitudes to provide equal opportunities. We’ve made a lot of progress on that in the last 50 years. But there’s an even trickier part that comes next. Allowing qualified minorities to step up might also mean, in some cases, that white men need to take a step back.
That feels unfair. It is unfair. We should sit with that feeling for a while. Because it’s exactly what Black people and women in this country have felt forever.
The one thing we should mention here is that Beasley was leading the race anyway. She had raised more money and racked up key endorsements. But Jackson still had a real shot. He told Axios’ Michael Graff that his advisers said he’d have to go negative to win, and he refused. But whatever the reason, Jackson undoubtedly knew the math. There have been nearly 2,000 senators in our nation’s history. Two of them have been Black women.
There’s an F. Scott Fitzgerald line that goes something like, the test of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time. It’s possible to think that Jackson might have been the better candidate, but Beasley should win anyway. I wonder if, somewhere down deep, Jackson feels that way, too.