HBCU Districts: Gerrymandering and Efforts to Strip Black Political Power

Xavier Buck, Ph.D, Payne Center Research Fellow

Every decade the United States conducts a federal census to count and collect important data on its population. Once their research is complete, they notify states if they are gaining, losing, or maintaining their congressional districts based on their population changes. For example, California has the highest population of any state and therefore carries the most congressional districts. However, over the last decade California’s population growth has slowed and as a result it lost one congressional seat, while growing states like Texas and Florida gained two and one, respectively. In the new decade, legislatures redraw congressional districts to account for the population changes, but that process is left up to the party in power of that state. In every state across the country, controlling parties “gerrymander” congressional districts, or manipulate boundaries to favor their own party. Even in states where there is no significant population change, controlling parties redraw district lines to increase their political power, an American tradition dating back to 1812.

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have long served as both centers of Black political power and contested spaces for redistricting. Today, most HBCU students, faculty, and staff lean Democratic, but tend to be in majority Republican states. FiveThirtyEight’s congressional district tracker makes it very easy to see the difference between old and new districts, particularly as it relates to the geographic locations of HBCUs.

One of the most alarming cases of lawmakers gerrymandering HBCUs can be found in Greensboro, North Carolina. Greensboro is home to the Democratic strongholds of North Carolina A&T University and Bennett College, two HBCUs with long traditions of political organizing. North Carolina’s 6th district was traditionally centered around Greensboro where Democrats held a 21-point lead. However, Greensboro was gerrymandered into an entirely new district where Republicans lead by 16 points, virtually eliminating Black political influence from the universities. In 2016, North Carolina legislators were forced to redraw congressional districts after they were deemed unconstitutionally gerrymandered. Legislators proposed splitting North Carolina A&T University’s campus into two districts that favored Republicans, but students and Greensboro residents organized against these efforts, taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court and preventing Black voter dilution. In response to their organizing efforts, Republican legislators gerrymandered the entire city of Greensboro into a majority Republican district just a few years later, crushing their political opposition at North Carolina A&T University.

In a politically gridlocked Virginia, legislators chose a different strategy to increase their party’s influence. After a series of redistricting laws were struck down by federal courts because they were based on an unjustified predominant use of race, Virginia finally passed a voting rights bill in March 2021 to prevent voting dilution among racial and language minorities. However, whether or not Black voter dilution was prevented in the new redistricting plan is still up for debate.

Virginia’s 3rd district, which includes the historically Black universities of Norfolk State and Hampton, was consolidated, ultimately creating a slightly stronger Democratic district. Yet, by shrinking the 3rd district, Republicans turned a more contested 2nd district, currently held by a Democratic congresswoman, into a Republican-leaning district.

The HBCUs’ influence on the contested district was reduced even though their power was consolidated within their Democratic district. In response to making the 2nd district more conservative, Democrats gerrymandered the 7th district, near Alexandria, to lean more Democrat. While this balanced Democrat and Republican districts, it did not maintain or expand HBCU influence. While HBCUs chance of influencing the 2nd district was reduced, they have little opportunity to influence the 7th district because there aren’t any HBCUs in or near that district.

HBCUs in North Carolina and Virginia were, by far, the most negatively affected by redistricting, but other states made efforts to guarantee political stagnation in HBCU districts. Alabama gerrymanders its biggest cities, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Selma, and Montgomery, into one district, effectively creating only one majority Black and Democratic district in the state. HBCUs like Miles College, Stillman College, Selma University, and Alabama State University were all consolidated into one district while Tuskegee University is apportioned into a Republican district. In 2013, the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Caucus filed a suit in federal court against the racial gerrymandering in the state but lost, bolstering Republican political power and weakening HBCU and Black political influence. Alabama legislators made very little effort to redraw maps in 2021 and continued the same pattern of racial gerrymandering. The situation is even bleaker in Oklahoma, a state with only Republican districts and one HBCU. Despite Langston University’s district already leaning Republican by 11 points, legislators gerrymandered their district to give Republicans a 24-point lead, effectively eliminating the Democratic-leaning university’s influence in the district.

One example where HBCU influence was not diluted was in Houston, Texas, home of Texas Southern University. The 18th district, which stretches from the southern side of the city, through the downtown area, and into the northern side of the city, allows Texas Southern University to have a large influence over these majority Black neighborhoods. It helps that there are three other Democratic districts bordering the 18th district, making it nearly impossible for Republicans to gerrymander the city in a way that would benefit them. This district was originally created in 1970, mostly encompassing only downtown Houston. Texas Southern University’s own Barbara Jordan was the first representative of this district and the first Black person from the Deep South elected to the House of Representatives in the 20th century. After her stellar career as a congresswoman, another Texas Southern University alum, Mickey Leland, carried the mantle as Jordan’s successor. To this day, Texas Southern University and the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs continue to influence the political landscape of the 18th district and the surrounding areas.

Many HBCUs are Democratic-leaning centers of political education and organizing, and Republicans are making efforts to dilute their voting power and influence. HBCUs tend to be in Republican-controlled states in the South, where they are vulnerable to racial gerrymandering. In politically gridlocked states like Virginia, Democrats have also overlooked the significance of HBCU ideas and organizing power in Democratic districts. Across the country, there were no significant improvements made in districts where HBCUs are located, but some universities have held onto their power. This is why the N. Joyce Payne Center for Social Justice has partnered with the National HBCU Alumni Association Foundation’s voter registration and education programs. This year’s redistricting demonstrates that Black voices are being diminished across the United States despite student, faculty, and community organizing and legal efforts.