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An exchange between lawmakers left a Black legislator defending his educational background

Headshots of Reps. Jeff McNeely and Abe Jones
Rep. Jeff McNeely (left), Rep. Abe Jones

An exchange betweenRep. Jeff McNeely, R-Iredell, and Rep. Abe Jones, D-Wake, during a debate on the school voucher bill ended with McNeely suspended from continuing to speak and Jones defending his educational background on Wednesday.

McNeely, who is white, asked if Jones, who is Black, would have been able to attend Harvard University and Harvard Law School if he was not an athlete or a minority. Prior to Harvard, Jones was a graduate of Wake County Public Schools and states on his campaign website that he was the first Black student council member at Enloe High School.

"I understand you went to the public school and then you went to Harvard, Harvard Law," McNeely says. "My question I guess, is would you have been able to maybe achieve this if you were not an athlete or a minority, or any of these things, but you were a student trapped in a school that the slowest — you know in the wild we'll say the slowest gazelle does not survive. But yet the herd moves at that pace. So the brightest child sometimes is held back."

After the comments from McNeely, House Democratic Leader Robert Reives stood up and reacted.

"I'm hoping I wasn't the only one that got shocked by that comment? That the only reason you went to Harvard was because you were Black and an athlete," Reives said.

According to his campaign website, McNeely manages his family business, the G & M Milling Co.

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

After graduating from Harvard and Harvard Law, Jones returned to North Carolina and worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District, the NC Attorney General’s Office, and as an Administrative Law Judge. He then spent decades as a superior court judge, first appointed and then elected. Jones has also worked in private practice and taught at UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law.

McNeely began to apologize to Jones before Republican House Speaker Tim Moore suspended his ability to speak. North Carolina political reporter Bryan Anderson tweeted that McNeely later apologized on the House floor.

The General Assembly's video stream of the debate that featured the exchange was removed from the official YouTube channel on Wednesday afternoon.

In a statement issued later Wednesday afternoon, Jones said, “It is disappointing that another member of our chamber would imply that I have been successful simply because of the color of my skin, or because I am an athlete. I appreciate the member apologizing for his remarks.”

McNeely did not immediately respond to a request for comment from WUNC.

One of Republicans' priorities this session has been private school vouchers. The voucher program has grown rapidly in the last few years, and this year, state taxpayers paid $133 million on those vouchers.

One in six private school students in North Carolina already receives a voucher, which Democrats argue leaves less money for public schools.

The school voucher bill at the center of the debate passed the House soon after the lawmakers' exchange.

WUNC's Laura Pellicer and Dave DeWitt contributed to this report.

Josh Sullivan is a social media producer with WUNC’s digital news team.