The battle for Alamance: Check out the new Policy Watch special report

What is the deal with Alamance County?

That’s a question that many caring and thinking North Carolinians have posed a lot in recent decades as they’ve confronted and digested repeated reports of racial tensions, discriminatory misconduct by law enforcement, and displays of white supremacy.

At first blush, Alamance seems an unlikely locale for such issues. With a population of more than 160,000, bisected by a major interstate, and sandwiched between two large and increasingly diverse and tolerant metro areas (the Triad and the Triangle), Alamance is no off-the-beaten-path, Old South backwater.

Indeed, North Carolina’s 17th largest county is home to a sizable private university of growing renown and at one point, its textile industry was a thriving economic engine that employed thousands and attracted skilled transplants from around the country. Alamance has also elected at least a smattering of progressive politicians to public office down through the years, and in 2020, it elected the first Latinx Democrat to ever serve in the North Carolina House – a son of Salvadoran immigrants named Ricky Hurtado.

Sadly, however, as Alamance looks ahead to the 175th anniversary of its founding in just under three years, such attributes aren’t the things for which it has come to be best known.

While the county is increasingly diverse and home to many forward-looking residents determined to build a 21st Century economy and a community of real and sustainable tolerance, Alamance’s chief cause célèbre in 2021 is its status as locus of reaction, repression, and conflict.

Just last year, the county seat of Graham was the site of multiple racially charged incidents involving demonstrations against abusive law enforcement and jail practices, access to the polls, and the future of Confederate monuments – incidents that gave rise to several highly questionable arrests and multiple complaints of civil rights violations.

And of course, these events happened in a county whose best-known politician – Sheriff Terry Johnson – is a hard-right law enforcement officer who has gained regional and national attention for targeting Latinx immigrants and uttering Trump-like pronouncements for nearly two decades. Trump himself bested Joe Biden in the county by 8.4% in 2020 and Hillary Clinton by 12.6% in 2016.

So, what gives? How did this complex situation arise? What does one find today when one looks beyond the headlines? And what might the future hold?

Over the coming weeks the NC Policy Watch team of journalists will provide at least partial answers to these and some related questions in a series of special reports examining different aspects of the Alamance story.

Today, we begin the series with a fascinating but sobering report from Investigative Reporter Joe Killian on the deep-seated racism and frequently horrific incidents of violence and repression that have long plagued the county.

Reports in the coming weeks will include:

  • Investigative Reporter Lynn Bonner on the politics surrounding a Confederate monument that stands outside the county courthouse and the refusal of an all-white county commission that’s elected at-large to seriously consider its removal;
  • Education Reporter Greg Childress on the myriad challenges that confront the county’s public school system in an era of inadequate resources, resegregation, and privatization;
  • Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter Yanqi Xu on how Sheriff Terry Johnson’s controversial force is interacting with and impacting the lives of people of color nearly a decade after the U.S. Department of Justice found it had engaged in a pattern of racial profiling; and
  • Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg on the environmental justice and public health issues related to polluters that disproportionately burden the county’s low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

It’s our hope that, taken together and in the best tradition of investigative journalism, these reports will shine a spotlight on several important problems that have remained hidden below the surface too long, and ultimately, lead to the kind of open and honest discussions that are a necessary predicate to progress.

We welcome your questions, feedback, and suggestions for additional reporting going forward.

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