The brief explosion in Black political representation in the latter half of the 19th century inspired widespread efforts to disenfranchise Black voters via literacy tests, the grandfather clause and other laws.
Despite the best efforts of social justice organizers, attorneys and politicians, such methods continue to be used in the modern era, much to the detriment of Black voters and arguably other marginalized groups clamoring for political power.
Gerrymandering, the process by which state officials redraw district boundaries to dilute racial and interest groups’ political power, has grown in popularity as the strategy of choice. Months after President Donald Trump’s (R) reelection efforts fizzled, Republicans continue to consolidate their power at the state and federal level through the redrawing of district maps.
In Tennessee, where Republicans have long enjoyed a majority in the state legislature, the new congressional map places two Democratic incumbents, Reps. London Lamar and Torrey Harris, in the same Memphis district.
Rural districts would also acquire portions of Memphis and Rutherford, Tenn., both of which are home to a significant portion of Black people and other nonwhite residents. Nashville, located in one of the fastest growing parts of Tennessee, has also been split three ways, prompting longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D -TN 05) not to seek reelection.
With a successful court challenge looking unlikely, some grassroots organizers like Tamara Bates have set their sights on educating Black voters and laying the groundwork for the 2024 election.
During the latter part of last year, Bates and other members of The Equity Alliance engaged state lawmakers about the BlackPrint, a compilation of policy solutions intended to solidify Black power. They have also been grooming candidates for the state legislature and school board.
“We’re playing the long game,” Bates said. “What has happened is reactive, but The Equity Alliance has been ahead as far as tracking the bills and policies coming down the pipeline. We have also been stacking our dominoes for 2024 by building up our bench. There are many people who put their hats in the ring to run for office.”
A Game That Has Gone on for Decades
Every decade, after the completion of the Census, states and other jurisdictions undergo a redistricting process to equalize each political district’s population. Whether such actions can be designated as gerrymandering depends on the groups that challenge redistricting map proposals.
At a time when portions of the Voting Rights Act have been gutted and efforts to pass new federal voter protection laws have been stunted, the battle to protect Black political power continues at the state level, in the legislatures and in the courts.
This week, the federal courts in Arkansas heard a challenge to the state’s redistricting map. The Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Arkansas State Conference and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) asked U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky to block the new map they said dilutes Black political power. Days earlier, Rudofsky refused to recuse himself from the trial despite his ties to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
Similar situations have played out in Prince George’s County, Md., New York, Alabama and North Carolina with challenges coming from Democrats and Republicans. In North Carolina, the state’s supreme court heard a case this week to determine the constitutionality of a redistricting map approved by Republican lawmakers last year.
The new map, aptly named the 11-3 map, redistricts the state of North Carolina so that Republicans dominate 11 of the districts. Changes include the splitting of North Carolina’s 1st District, located near the North-Carolina-Virginia border. On the new map, majority-Black districts that include Greensboro and Winston-Salem have also been divided.
This incited fury among several Democrats, including Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who in response, announced his retirement in a video last November. A three-judge panel in North Carolina’s lower courts later designated the new map as a form of political gerrymandering. However, it didn’t meet their threshold of a constitutional violation.
But Butterfield, first elected to represent North Carolina’s 1st District in 2004, vehemently disagreed. He said for more than 20 years, Republicans, with the use of voter data and mapping software, have manipulated district maps to meet their political interests. Butterfield called it a response to Democrats’ and Black people’s growing political power.
He also predicted that the North Carolina Supreme Court would rule against the new map, forcing the state legislature to redraw the boundaries.
“I tell voters to pay attention to what’s happening in your state capital and in Washington, D.C.,” Butterfield said. “What lawmakers are doing today and tomorrow will affect generations to come. You have to be aware, informed and engaged.”
The Politics of Redistricting on the Home Front
The District, an overwhelmingly Democratic city, has racial, economic, social and generational fault lines which the redistricting process exposed, as seen in discussions about the future layout of Ward 5, 7 and 8.
Weeks after the approval of the finalized map, members of those communities continue to embrace and navigate their new realities.
D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) recently conducted the third of several redistricting meetings to determine the next steps in including the more affluent, resource rich Navy Yard community into Ward 8. The expansion of Ward 8 beyond the Anacostia River and into Navy Yard, formerly of Ward 6, not only adds more amenities to Ward 8 but increases the ward’s wealth gap and creates three new ANC seats for Navy Yard residents to fill.
In the months leading up to the D.C. redistricting committee’s approval of the new boundary lines, Ward 8 residents mulled over whether the addition of Navy Yard would weaken Black political representation. Conversations also centered on the racial composition of Ward 8’s ANCs and the likelihood of non-Black people becoming ANC commissioners.
However, as ANC Commissioner Jamila White (ANC 8A05) explained, the Ward 8 residents involved in discussions practiced cautious optimism about expanding their community. Even with some concerns about demographic changes, White said that the Ward 8 community members she engaged embraced the opportunity to attract more investment opportunities, create racial cohesion and tackle equity issues plaguing their communities.
When it comes racial equity, White said the District government still has a long way to go in prioritizing Black residents. While recounting redistricting hearings she attended last year, she said residents in other parts of the District often expressed their apprehension about merging with majority-Black Ward 7 and 8 neighborhoods.
“The way people [from other communities] talked about Wards 7 and 8 was disheartening. They looked down on us so much,” White said. “For D.C. to be one of the most progressive places [in the country], some of the verbal testimony [at the hearings] had undertones of anti-Black racism and a need to not be associated with Black people. It was clear that some people thought they were above us.”