On Monday, May 31, my phone lit up with a message from Pittsboro Anti-Racist Alerts. White supremacists had once again gathered in Pittsboro’s town center to fly Confederate battle flags. This stubborn vigil began two years ago when the Board of County Commissioners started considering the removal of Pittsboro’s Confederate monument. And though the statue is long gone, the racist opposition continues to assert itself in my hometown—by disseminating neo-Confederate screeds online, by attempting to push the school board and county political bodies further right, and by menacing downtown Pittsboro and the rest of Chatham County with hate symbols. 

This protracted reaction has everything to do with racism. But in looking back on the years of white supremacist protest in Chatham County, the connection to (or rather, manipulation of) class conflict is also laid bare. Pittsboro’s uneasy marriage to the progressive, suburban Triangle has spurred drastic change in Chatham County, causing tension between longtime locals and “transplant” residents. White supremacists have been able to exploit that tension to justify their cause. 

North Carolina has a profound urban-rural divide. The NC Rural Center has found that rural counties tend to have higher poverty rates, lower average incomes, and less access to healthcare and higher education. Most rural counties in North Carolina are experiencing a significant decline in population, leaving many communities even more unstable than before. Chatham County is one of the few exceptions. Since 2010, its population has grown by 16.3 percent, outpacing neighboring counties like Orange and Durham. North Chatham in particular has exploded with new arrivals: massive housing developments like Briar Chapel and Chatham Park have brought in tens of thousands of people, and will only attract more as construction progresses. 

There remain significant differences between newer residents and those who have roots in Chatham County. Chatham’s median household income in 2019 was $67,031; in Briar Chapel, it was $84,783. Many transplants do white-collar work and commute to the Triangle; longtime residents are more likely to do local, blue-collar work. Many transplants are solidly progressive, at odds with the more conservative residents who live in rural parts of the county. Growing up in North Chatham, the class division was readily apparent even at the high school level. Who got dropped off and who had to take long bus rides? Who went on to college and who stayed in town? Who worked part-time out of necessity and who didn’t? It’s fair to say that a lot of people in Chatham County feel cheated out of the prosperity our newer neighbors have acquired. 

Throughout the Confederate statue conflict, those sentiments resurfaced in the arguments of the racist opposition. At one county meeting in May 2019, several people alluded to the tension between transplants and locals during a public input session. Brantley Webster, who sat on the board for the Chatham County Historical Association, said it was merely “outside activists” agitating for change. Keith Roberts pointed out that those supporting removal “have fine homes in the northern part of Chatham.” But it was Kevin Stone, the Chatham County probation officer revealed to have ties to the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, who made the most distinct reference. “Unfortunately, as most working-class people, we do not have the resources nor time that our opponents in this matter [of removing the Confederate statue] do and we know that our attempts to appeal to reason and moderation are falling on deaf ears.”

I don’t mean to suggest that Chatham County’s neo-Confederates are primarily motivated by class. Nor do I think that white supremacists can be forgiven for racial terrorism due to class background. The fetishization of the white rural working class in the United States has, at this point, become parodic. From J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to the proliferation of old-guy-in-a-South-Carolina-diner-tells-us-why-he-voted-for-Trump journalism, there’s no shortage of sympathy for white people in rural areas, even (and sometimes especially) if they’re racist. When taken with the rise of white rural demagogues like Madison Cawthorn and the continued domination of white, rural, Republican interests over North Carolina politics, it’s easy to see how this identity is used to further the aims of white supremacy. 

Above all, it has allowed racists to re-establish control over the narrative. Instead of racists versus antiracists, it’s transplants versus natives. Instead of racists versus antiracists, it’s the working class versus the upper middle classes. This distorted thinking allowed them to capture state attention in 2019. It drives them to continue their campaign of racial intimidation, no matter where the statue now stands. 

Maybe it’s too late to make that point. That thinking is already championed by so many—not just in Pittsboro, but in Graham, Wilmington, and every other small town struggling with its white supremacist past. However, as Chatham County continues to expand, it is imperative that we put that myth to rest. Transplants are making irrevocable and at times unwanted changes here. The solution is not allowing racists to speak for local interests. The solution is to empower those spoken over: the Black Chathamites who can trace their family lineage back hundreds of years, the growing community of working-class Latinx people in South Chatham, and the rural, working-class white people who lead antiracist lives. We can’t settle for easy stories about slighted white conservatives waving Confederate flags by the courthouse. Otherwise, they’ll just keep showing up. 

NIKOLAI MATHER is a freelance writer based in Chapel Hill. Follow him on Twitter, or comment on this column at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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