This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from The Puffin Foundation.
North Carolina State Senator Eric Mansfield was born in 1964, a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote for African-Americans. He grew up in Columbus, Georgia, and moved to North Carolina when he was stationed at Fort Bragg. He became an Army doctor, opening a practice in Fayetteville after leaving the service. Mansfield says he was always “very cynical about politics” but decided to run for office in 2010 after being inspired by Barack Obama’s presidential run.
He ran a grassroots campaign in the Obama mold, easily winning the election with 67 percent of the vote. He represented a compact section of northwest Fayetteville that included Fort Bragg and the most populous areas of the city. It was a socioeconomically diverse district, comprising white and black and rich and poor sections of the city. Though his district had a black voting age population (BVAP) of 45 percent, Mansfield, who is African-American, lives in an old, affluent part of town that he estimates is 90 percent white. Many of his neighbors are also his patients.
But after the 2010 census and North Carolina’s once-per-decade redistricting process—which Republicans control by virtue of winning the state’s General Assembly for the first time since the McKinley administration—Mansfield’s district looks radically different. It resembles a fat squid, its large head in an adjoining rural county with little in common with Mansfield’s previously urban district, and its long tentacles reaching exclusively into the black neighborhoods of Fayetteville. The BVAP has increased from 45 to 51 percent, as white voters were surgically removed from the district and placed in a neighboring Senate district represented by a white Republican whom GOP leaders want to protect in 2012. Mansfield’s own street was divided in half, and he no longer represents most of the people in his neighborhood. His new district spans 350 square miles, roughly the distance from Fayetteville to Atlanta. Thirty-three voting precincts in his district have been divided to accommodate the influx of new black voters. “My district has never elected a nonminority state senator, even though minorities were never more than 45 percent of the vote,” Mansfield says. “I didn’t need the help. I was doing OK.”
Mansfield’s district is emblematic of how the redistricting process has changed the political complexion of North Carolina, as Republicans attempt to turn this racially integrated swing state into a GOP bastion, with white Republicans in the majority and black Democrats in the minority for the next decade. “We’re having the same conversations we had forty years ago in the South, that black people can only represent black people and white people can only represent white people,” says Mansfield. “I’d hope that in 2012 we’d have grown better than that.” Before this year, for example, there were no Senate districts with a BVAP of 50 percent or higher. Now there are nine. A lawsuit filed by the NAACP and other advocacy groups calls the redistricting maps “an intentional and cynical use of race that exceeds what is required to ensure fairness to previously disenfranchised racial minority voters.”
And it’s not just happening in North Carolina. In virtually every state in the South, at the Congressional and state level, Republicans—to protect and expand their gains in 2010—have increased the number of minority voters in majority-minority districts represented overwhelmingly by black Democrats while diluting the minority vote in swing or crossover districts held by white Democrats. “What’s uniform across the South is that Republicans are using race as a central basis in drawing districts for partisan advantage,” says Anita Earls, a prominent civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “The bigger picture is to ultimately make the Democratic Party in the South be represented only by people of color.” The GOP’s long-term goal is to enshrine a system of racially polarized voting that will make it harder for Democrats to win races on local, state, federal and presidential levels. Four years after the election of Barack Obama, which offered the promise of a new day of postracial politics in states like North Carolina, Republicans are once again employing a Southern Strategy that would make Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater proud.