North Carolina: Using Race (Again) as a Tool to Disrupt Multiracial Political Coalitions

History repeats itself, but thankfully, not exactly. Still, we have a distressing degree of repetition in North Carolina.

North Carolina once had a political party that, at first, called itself "Conservative." From 1868 to the 1890s, the Conservatives opposed a biracial coalition of voters who supported voting rights for all men, free public education and broader democracy. After a short period of success, the biracial coalition was defeated by the anti-coalition Conservatives. The Conservatives used purported election "reforms" and gerrymanders to disadvantage recently enfranchised black male voters and their allies -- to disadvantage the biracial coalition. They also used political terror against pro-coalition whites and blacks. These tactics accelerated in the 1890s when a biracial coalition again briefly captured political power in the state. The anti-coalition party returned to power.

The anti-coalition party had slashed expenditures for education. It also modified election laws in ways that looked neutral, but that depressed the black vote. Under its leadership, poll taxes, literacy tests and demands for voters to list the names of their employers were suddenly demanded at the polls.

The anti-coalition "Conservative" party soon renamed itself as the Democratic Party of the 19th century. After 1900, along with the white Democratic primary, the anti-coalition party's election "reforms" and political terrorism, succeeded in depressing and then virtually eliminating the black vote in North Carolina.

It is common to treat the anti-democratic revolution that swept North Carolina and the South in the 19th and early 20th centuries as simply racist. The reality is more complex.

Race was a tool Southern oligarchs used in the struggle for political domination. A major reason the anti-coalition party targeted black voters is that they were identifiable, vulnerable and voted Republican. The anti-coalition party used violence against both black and white Republicans -- because they supported the "Negro Republican Party," as the anti-coalition party's leaders dubbed it.

Over time, things changed. The national Democratic Party increasingly supported equal rights for all Americans, including African-Americans. In 1948, President Harry Truman integrated the military, and the Democratic Party platform supported civil rights legislation to eliminate discrimination based on race or religion in employment and in the right to vote. In the 1960s, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with bipartisan support. It forbade discrimination in public accommodations or employment based on race, religion, national origin or (for employment), sex. A year later Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 attacking disfranchisement of Americans of African descent in the South. President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, led the movement for both laws. But Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1964, opposed both measures. Many more blacks left the Republican Party and became Democrats. By 1972, when President Richard Nixon won re-election, the South had become solidly Republican at the presidential level.

Today, roles are reversed. Our "anti-coalition party" calls itself the Republican Party, while the Democratic Party has become the multiracial party that the Republican Party was 150 years ago.

Political terror and overt racial appeals are no longer weapons of the anti-coalition party. But some old tactics persist. In 2011, the North Carolina Republican Party used racial quotas and racial targets to pack more black voters into heavily black election districts, adjusting district lines to move out voters of other races, even where they had been part of a coalition handily electing black candidates.

In districts where black voters had been supporting white candidates, again thanks to computer line drawing, those black voters were largely relocated too. Faced with some electoral success of today's multiracial Democratic Party, the Republican Party -- yesterday's anti-coalitionists -- undertook election "reform" to target the black vote.

The anti-coalition party's new election "reforms" -- including eliminating same day voter registration, cutting back on early voting, and splitting precincts to confuse voters and to disfranchise the confused -- overwhelmingly disadvantage a larger percentage of blacks than whites. And longer lines at the polls -- which these and other "reforms" will no doubt cause -- overwhelmingly disadvantage working people of both races. Any attempt to depress the vote of otherwise qualified voters is anti-democratic and wrong.

Partisan gerrymandering is also anti-democratic and wrong -- whoever does it. Gerrymanders can let a party that wins the Legislature in a redistricting year win a majority of seats in later elections -- even if the gerrymandering party no longer carries a majority of the votes. It makes a mockery of the idea that government should represent "We the People."

In the 2012 congressional elections -- held after the anti-coalition 2011 gerrymander -- on a statewide basis, Democratic candidates in North Carolina received 50.6 percent of the vote while Republican candidates received 48.75 percent of the vote. And yet, thanks to gerrymandering with racial quotas and targets that packed black voters into weirdly shaped districts (where black Democratic candidates then got 75 percent and 79 percent of the vote), we have four Democrats and nine Republicans representing the interests of North Carolina in Congress. The anti-coalition gerrymandering transformed a minority of 2012 Republican congressional voters into a huge majority of Republican seats in Congress.

The anti-coalition party's gerrymander used two explicitly race-based criteria, both purportedly justified by the Voting Rights Act. First, in redrawing congressional and legislative district lines, it has concentrated more black voters into 50 percent black voting age population districts -- even in districts where, thanks to a multiracial coalition, African-American voters' black candidates were already winning handily -- without adding more black votes to make a 50 percent black majority.

The increased racial packing also helped to defeat white legislators who had been elected with black support -- another blow to multiracial coalitions.

In addition to the 50 percent black voter quota, the Legislature also sought to assure that the percent of blacks in the Legislature would be in proportion to the black voting age population of the state. The quota produced a few more black legislators and disrupted the multiracial legislative coalition, reducing black and white Democratic legislators to a disempowered minority. So black representatives are no longer able to form effective coalitions, much less, as in the recent past, can they to hope to chair committees or to become Speaker of the House.

The Republican Party has advanced an agenda of racial polarization. As the journalist Thomas B. Edsall wrote, "Republicans in the South [in private] talk explicitly about their goal of turning the Democratic Party into a black party." (Recall past anti-coalition party's emphasis on the "Negro Republican Party.") Blacks still serve in the Legislature, yet they increasingly do so without the white allies that they once had, whose ranks have been decimated by racial districting.

Some claim these tactics are fine, because they are politically, not racially motivated. In light of the relentless racial quotas, the claim is dubious. In Forsyth County, white state Sen. Linda Garrou had been the preferred candidate of black voters, even when she had black opponents. Yet pursing its racial quotas and proportions in its attack on biracial coalitions, Republicans drew Senator Garrou out of her district. Sen. Robert Rucho, the state Senate's districting czar, admitted that Senator Garrou would not have been excised had she been a black incumbent.

In terms of partisan votes in the legislature, a Democrat is a Democrat. But in terms of a racially polarizing agenda and a quota of black legislators, leaving in a white Democrat who had been preferred by black voters would not do.

The anti-coalition party claims its gerrymandering tactics are justified by the Voting Rights Act. But the text of the Voting Rights Act rejects a requirement of racial proportionality and says only that minorities should be entitled to an equal chance to elect their chosen leaders -- regardless of the race of the person they choose. Packing more black voters into districts where black legislators had already been winning handily was hardly needed to give blacks in North Carolina an equal chance of success. Denying black voters the chance to vote for their favored white state senator is not a step toward racial equality.

Courts must decide if these racial-quota and biracial-coalition-disrupting tactics are legally permissible. Voters have an independent decision to make -- whether these tactics are consistent with the sort of society, law, and democracy they seek. This use of racial polarization to disrupt multiracial coalitions is a new chapter of an old and ugly story.