State of Exclusion: Profile on Lenoir County
Following last year’s State of Exclusion report, on Monday March 24, 2014, the UNC Center for Civil Rights released its profile of Lenoir County, the first in a series of in-depth examinations of exclusion and the legacy of racial segregation in individual counties. Both the Lenoir study and last year’s report are available at www.uncinclusionproject.org.
In the middle of the Black Belt of Eastern North Carolina, Lenoir County is divided between its mostly white rural population and the concentrated African American populations in Kinston and La Grange. This new report focuses on the impact of the racial segregation on public education, political representation, and utility service. Profiles of other counties will follow in the coming weeks, each highlighting particular aspects of that county’s history, ongoing impacts of exclusion, and progress toward full inclusion of all residents.
The county-wide school district in Lenoir County is the result of the 1992 merger of the majority white county school system with the majority African American Kinston city school district. Despite the merger, educational segregation persists because of an inequitable assignment model. The assignment zone for Kinston High School still basically follows the lines of the former city school district. The result is that Kinston High School and other schools in Kinston are racially isolated; they have even higher concentrations of African Americans than the city itself. Compared to the county schools, Kinston High has much higher percentages of free and reduced lunch eligible students and worse educational outcomes, with an average SAT score that is 100 points lower, and significantly fewer students passing English, Algebra I, and Biology end of grade tests. Redrawing assignment zones to effectuate merger in more than name only would result in greater educational equity and opportunity for all Lenoir County students.
Lenoir County also faces challenges with respect to equal voting rights for all of its citizens. Formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the county is notorious for the challenge to the Voting Rights Act following the U.S. Department of Justice’s refusal to let Kinston move to non-partisan elections. African Americans are underrepresented at every local government board in the county with the sole exception of the La Grange Town Council. Without the protection of Section 5 (gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013), there may be little hope for improvement and any further redistricting or voting changes should be closely watched for any adverse impact on African American voters. Ideally, countywide districts should be redrawn to maximize African American voting strength, and the possibility of districted elections for Kinston town council should be explored. African American voters in the county also lost federal political power in the 2011 Congressional redistricting, which packed voters from Lenoir into U.S. House District 1, represented by G.K. Butterfield, with the African American voters of 22 counties spanning from Durham, east all the way to Pasquotank County, and from Craven County north to the Virginia border. That redistricting is still being challenged in federal court under the Voting Rights Act.
The county does a better job than some in providing equal access to utilities. Most residents have water service, and sewer is provided within the towns. The majority African American towns of Kinston and La Grange also provide electricity to most of their residents and some communities outside their limits, as part of the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency. Unfortunately municipal rates are on average about a third higher than electricity sold by private utilities, and customers have no choice in electric providers. The result is that the disproportionately African American residents of the towns pay significantly higher bills than their rural, predominantly white neighbors. While the issue of high municipal electric rates will require a statewide solution, both Kinston and La Grange should cease any transfers of funds from electric revenue to their general operating fund, which unfairly burdens out of town residents.
The information in this profile of Lenoir County can only come alive through dialogue with the affected communities. The Center for Civil Rights hopes to hear from residents, advocates, and community leaders as we continue to uncover the history and scope of exclusion. Our goal is to provide communities, advocates, and policy makers with an understanding of the shared causes of the overlapping challenges facing excluded communities, provide them with data on the seriousness of the issues, and to suggest where additional data is needed. The first phase of the project was a statewide analysis and the publication of the State of Exclusion report. The results were startling, especially with respect to educational disparities and environmental justice issues, but ultimately the report raised more questions than provided answers. The Inclusion Project of the UNC Center for Civil Rights now continues this work with these profiles of individual counties. Look for information on other counties this spring.