I went to a community meeting the other day about how voting districts are drawn and the impact of these arbitrary lines. The forum focused on issues within our city and county as they pertain to the voting district in which the meeting was held. The meeting was hosted by a knowledgeable community member who serves as a voting precinct chairperson for the county Democratic party. He invited several candidates for local office (two for County Commissioner and one for State House), a couple of whom are also incumbents, to serve as a panel for the discussion. One of the candidates on the panel was a no-show. The organizer also leveraged his connections with the ACLU to get help spreading the word about the event, which is how I became aware of it.
There were about twenty people in the audience. I came to understand over the course of the meeting that only about half of the audience were community members just wanting to engage the issues or become better informed, such as me. There were several people that were democratic chairpersons from other precincts in town and their companions, one person that spoke as if they might work for the government or another party (who left early, seemingly displeased with the information presented), and a candidate for local office from another district. As far as I could tell, there were only two community members from the host precinct in the audience. I was at once grateful that they held the event so that I could better understand the issues and disappointed that more people did not attend.
There were two people who attended the meeting seemingly with the intent to disrupt it. One was the person who I mentioned that spoke as if they may be a city or county employee and left early, and the other was quite vocal and stayed until the end. Both of these folks interrupted the precinct chairperson several times. He asked that questions be held until the end of his presentation, and still they persisted intermittently, loudly stating their disagreement or attempting to correct him, though not offering any substantive alternative view. I did some on-the-spot research and his numbers checked out, as did his historical references. He knew what he was talking about and the elected officials backed him up.
These folks who were interrupting did not seem to dispute the larger points being made. I got the impression that they had other reasons for being rude and unsupportive. After all, you don’t have to agree with everything someone says to be polite enough to hear them out. They both seemed to disagree with this man’s perspective about why things are the way they are. Both of them asked for facts and figures regarding the demographical composition of the county, some of which the presenter had compiled and some he did not have on hand. For instance, he said that minorities comprise about 17-21% of our county’s population but he did not know what percentage of registered voters are non-white. The one heckler that stayed until the end may have revealed their reasons for being so contrary in a particularly scathing comment after the presentation. They said, “If your people voted, they would no longer be disenfranchised” (emphasis theirs).
You can probably guess without me telling you that the precinct chair making the presentation was African American, as are the majority of the residents in his precinct, and the person who made this vile comment is white. Early on, when this person made a comment about people needing to vote to make their voices heard, I found myself shaking my head in agreement, because I am a firm believer that we should all vote. I think we should use the system we have while working to make needed changes to it. But I was not aware of all of the dynamics of this meeting at that moment. Later, when this person made the “your people” comment, I was mortified. I did not want to be even remotely associated with that undeniably racist and vile comment.
I hope I do not need to tell you, dear reader, that disenfranchisement assumes marginalization. What this means in this scenario is that the people of color who comprise 19% of the citizens in this county can never not be marginalized given the persistent power dynamic in this town, this state, and our country that values white people (and money) over others. In communities where the population is more evenly distributed across races and ethnicities, it is possible (though not probable) that this entrenched power dynamic could be disrupted purely by vote. But here in New Hanover County, even if every single eligible citizen of color voted, the balance of power would remain the same. In towns like ours where the population is over 80% white, the only way that people of color cease to be disenfranchised is by the elected officials collectively deciding to treat all citizens fairly and equally. Upon reaching such a consensus, they then have to enact and enforce equitable policies. So far, that hasn’t happened, and the precinct chair on this afternoon did an excellent job of outlining many of the ways persistent racial and economic inequities manifest in local policies and practices.
Equity, as I am sure you know, is not merely a matter of dividing up the pie of tax dollars evenly based upon population, nor dividing it equally between all the county’s departments. It is about meeting the varying needs of all the parts of the county system to bring them into balance with one another. Using schools as one example, every school facility is in a different state of repair or disrepair, with the oldest buildings tending to be in the worst condition. Those oldest schools happen to be in the heart of the city where the majority of our families of color live. We have neighborhood schools here, except where select neighborhoods are being bussed to other locations, so most kids go to school nearest where they live. Every school receives funding on a per-student basis both from the state and from the county, though the county could certainly choose to budget differently. The older schools, which are also the smaller schools with lower student populations, receive less funding. The newer schools with more students – who happen to be predominantly white – get the majority of the money and resources, while the smaller, browner schools fall further into disrepair. School district maps, recent news on parent objections to redistricting, and a look at the history of gerrymandering in our state, which is inextricably linked to school districting, will provide a quick framework for this issue. This year, the Supreme Court of the United States intervened in the blatant gerrymandering in our state, and that’s saying something since corruption is currently in fashion.
This phenomenon is not limited to facility issues, but touches every aspect of the children’s education, including teacher salaries, textbooks, and toilet paper. The predominantly black and brown schools get less of everything. Parents in affluent neighborhoods frequently supplement their child’s education by buying supplies for the classroom, which lower income parents are unable to do. In a public school, no supplementing should be necessary; all schools should be adequately funded. This voluntary supplementing of school supplies is an unofficial revenue stream that serves to prop up the status quo. Even if you believe that per-student funding is a potentially viable approach, funding to schools based solely upon student population is only equitable if all schools are starting from the same place with the same needs and the same resources. That is most definitely not the case here in our county.
In addition to schools, there are policies affecting public transportation, zoning, housing, and property taxes, as well as code enforcement, that affect the daily lives of citizens and unfairly favor whites and the wealthy. This should not be a surprise to anyone, as it is blatant and long-standing, and not unique to this town. Political campaigns have been won on promises to change this discrimination, despite little progress. Scholars and reporters alike have written about it for decades. At this rate, they’ll be writing about it on our Nation’s 300th anniversary if we make it that far.
Folks, this is what racism and classism looks like in practice. Policies are dressed up in terms of districts, population, and tax bases, but they are really about the race, ethnicity, and class of the people who live within those districts. Full stop.
This issue is exacerbated by mass incarceration and by voting laws that bar those with prior felony convictions from voting, sometimes forever. Voting disenfranchisement is a hugely important issue. But without all people being equally valued and fairness being the foundation of our government systems, voting alone will not solve the problems faced by people of color in small cities like mine.
P.S. I did a little research. It turns out that African Americans represent 14% of the population and 16% of the registered voters in New Hanover County. All non-white voters comprise 19% of the population and 25% of the registered voters. Whites are 81% of the population yet comprise only 75% of the registered voters. Looks like our minority communities have done a better job of motivating their members to vote than white folks, per capita, despite that heckler’s implication. Too bad it hasn’t served to disenfranchise them.