RALEIGH – I’ve written many times in the past about what I call North Carolina’s Blarney tradition. We pretend to honor deeds over words, to “be rather than to seem” as the state motto puts it. We pretend to prefer long-suffering work horses to insufferable show horses. And we like to call North Carolina “a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit,” meaning Virginia and South Carolina, even though it takes a fair amount of arrogance to say things like that.
For North Carolina politicians of the Blarney tradition, the pretense of humility evaporates. They get boastful. They pick and choose among the national ratings that put North Carolina in the best possible light. They play up good news about our state and ignore or dismiss bad news. And they denigrate the economic vitality, educational level, or cultural values of other states in order to flatter ours.
Like her last two predecessors, Gov. Beverly Perdue has proved herself prone to blarney, boastfulness, and conceit. It’s an unappealing trait. Consider what happened last week when WITN-TV asked Perdue to comment on the passage of the marriage amendment. She made national headlines with her response:
People around the country are watching us and they’re really confused, to have been such a progressive, forward-thinking, economically driven state that invested in education and that stood up for the civil rights of people, including the civil rights marches back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s. Folks are saying, “What in the world is going on in North Carolina?” We look like Mississippi.
Regardless of one’s views about North Carolina’s new marriage amendment, it should be obvious that such rhetoric lies pretty far away from that fabled “vale of humility.” Perdue’s comments also subjected North Carolina to embarrassing rejoinders. The lieutenant governor of Mississippi was among those who pointed out that when it comes to the policy issue most people are worried about – jobs and the economy – North Carolina would be lucky to look like Mississippi, where the unemployment rate is lower than ours and the recovery from the Great Recession has been stronger. From March 2010 to March 2012, for example, Mississippi’s rate of employment growth exceeded North Carolina’s by about a third.
North Carolina was last in the nation in economic growth in 2011. We have lagged behind the national average in employment rates for many years now. And from 2000 to 2010, average personal income in North Carolina actually declined in inflation-adjusted, per-person terms for the first time in modern history, even as average incomes grew in the South as a whole and the nation as a whole.
These are not trends about which North Carolinians can afford to be boastful.
What about Perdue’s reference to education? Well, it is true that, on average, North Carolina students outscore Mississippi students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But recent trends suggest convergence. Mississippi has made larger average NAEP gains than North Carolina has in both reading and math since the late 1990s. The trend is evident among several subgroups. Among African-American students, for example, Mississippi posted a 19-point gain in 8th-grade math scores from 2000 to 2011, outpacing the average national gain of 17 points and North Carolina’s 10-point gain. In reading, average 8th-grade scores for black students in Mississippi rose three points from 1998 to 2011, while North Carolina experienced a two-point drop.
There is nothing wrong with being proud of one’s state. I’m a native North Carolinian and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world. But I think we need to be honest, bracingly so if necessary, about our state’s problems and challenges. We ought to be comparing ourselves to other places not to foster self-congratulation but instead to foster self-reflection.
You can be disappointed with the outcome of the marriage-amendment vote and not subject yourself to embarrassment as Perdue did last week. In fact, you are more likely to succeed in your ultimate goal if you avoid gratuitous insults of others, be they at home or abroad.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.