Gullah-Geechee Corridor resident Taiwan Scott is angry.
The South Carolina real estate agent, who focuses on supporting Black property owners, is in a battle with legislators as rising sea levels and more intense and frequent storms imperil Black Americans’ land and heritage across the approximately 12,000 square miles extending from North Carolina to Florida.
“Black people are ignored when it comes to how the environment and gentrification affect our communities,” Scott told Capital B. Along with the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, he sued the state last year over voting maps.
The district where he lives — Congressional District 1, based in Charleston County — is facing severe climate dangers. The Republican-controlled state legislature drew a map that would make it hard for Black voters to elect someone who might champion the kind of legislation they need. The flowering of resorts, golf courses, and marinas also is fueling displacement by raising housing prices and eroding the ability of salt marshes to shield coastal communities from advancing waters.
“Our areas are flooding,” Scott stressed. “You can see construction happening upstream, where they [companies] just pile up loads and loads of dirt. That runoff then comes to us.”
For Scott and other Black residents in vulnerable parts of the South, this conflict illuminates a wider truth: Redistricting is bound up with climate and development challenges.
Many of the states being confronted with lawsuits under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act or with racial gerrymanders are coastal states in the South with sizable Black populations.
“The Gullah-Geechee Corridor isn’t just in South Carolina. It starts in North Carolina and goes to Georgia and Florida,” said Antonio Ingram II, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“Not to mention Black people in the Tallahassee area, in the Florida Panhandle region. Not to mention Black people in New Orleans, Louisiana, and in Galveston, Texas,” he added. “These are all places that have been subjected to unfair and inequitable redistricting. And this intersects with not having responsive representatives.”
The dangers of an unfair map
In 2006, Congress designated the Gullah-Geechee Corridor as a federal National Heritage Area to bring greater attention to the historical significance of the Gullah-Geechee people. The culture stretches back to the 17th century, when enslaved Africans were forced to toil on rice, indigo, and cotton plantations along the Atlantic coast.
But South Carolina’s Republican power structure doesn’t appear to care much about preserving this culture, Scott said.
“It’s one thing to say that the Gullah-Geechee people matter. It’s another to take it to the next level — to actually sustain this group that’s been identified as being so important to the country’s history,” he explained.
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, which will decide if South Carolina Republicans discriminated against Black voters to bolster a partisan advantage after the 2020 census.
The high court’s conservative justices showed skepticism that the legislators had engaged in illegal racial discrimination — despite the fact that, particularly in old Jim Crow territories, race and party are inextricably linked. Almost 80% of Black adults in the Palmetto State identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, according to the Pew Research Center.
Under an unfair map, Black voters would struggle to meaningfully influence political contests — that is, to elect someone who might advocate for them on issues such as climate change and development.
The Charleston area, which has a prominent Gullah-Geechee presence, sits in the Lowcountry, where the sea level has risen around 10 inches since 1950 and where tidal flooding occurred about once a month in the ’90s but now occurs at least once a week, per NASA Earth Observatory.
Courtney Cannon, the environmental equity and justice specialist at the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, a nonprofit, echoed some of these sentiments.
She noted that construction, which can destroy the ability of salt marshes to protect against flooding and other kinds of extreme weather, only adds to the tremendous difficulties beleaguering Black coastal communities.
“Charleston is a very attractive place for people to live. Unfortunately, with that, gentrification happens, and developers build things [such as golf courses and large vacation homes],” she said. “It’s this weird push and pull, where Black communities say that they don’t want something, but then the county says that it wants economic growth. We hear about this a lot when it comes to gentrification, and specifically with vulnerable communities along the coast.”
‘Where’s the accountability?’
Yet this tension extends far beyond South Carolina.
In September, for instance, a Florida judge struck down the congressional lines endorsed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, holding that they led to the “diminishment of Black voters’ ability to elect their candidate of choice in violation of the Florida Constitution.”
DeSantis made the stunning move last year of forcing through the state legislature a map that guts Congressional District 5, which stretched from west of Tallahassee to Jacksonville and had for years provided representation to Black voters in northern Florida.
This plan divides Black voters who had been in District 5 across four districts and thus strips them of the chance to put into office someone who might promote solutions for an area battling sea level rise, sweltering heat, and climate gentrification — or when affluent people blow into low-income neighborhoods to flee intense weather patterns and bring bloated property values with them.
“Florida has become the laboratory for the far right’s campaign against Black America,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization, in a recent statement. “In the last year alone, we have seen a governor try to erase Black history, an effort to water down our right to vote, and a racially driven mass shooting.”
A similarly high-stakes situation is unfolding in Louisiana, which is involved in a congressional map skirmish. While the state is 33% Black, only one of its six districts is majority Black.
Maintaining the status quo, noted Monique Harden, the director of law and policy at the nonprofit Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, impedes climate action.
“Imagine what it’d be like to have a Louisiana where you’d have not one but two members of Congress who’d take a stand and address the concerns of their constituents,” she said, referring to disasters such as flash floods and powerful hurricanes.
Harden added that if you grow up in the region, you learn pretty early on that voting rights secure your rights in every other arena — from the environment to housing to employment to education to health care.
“All of those things are protected by having a voting system that works,” she said.
Harden showed Capital B a data analysis she ran of Federal Emergency Management Agency declarations across Louisiana. She found that though Black Americans are most likely to bear the brunt of disasters, they’re not equitably represented in FEMA declarations, which accelerate the process for residents to receive recovery aid.
She believes if there’s a Congress that’s less attuned to climate change or protecting Black communities, legislators will be less likely to fight for this sorely needed assistance.
Ingram underscored that we can’t lose sight of the fact that every representative matters, or that there are Black-preferred candidates who might have the ears of Black Americans and fight for federal intervention that might lift up struggling communities.
“I think that it’s sort of impossible to separate the issues of climate change and gentrification from the larger conversation about preserving the dignity of Black people in this country, especially in places that are the most vulnerable to these problems,” he said.
That voice, he explained, is what he and others are lacking — someone to come in and say that enough is enough, someone to speak out against injustices.
“Legislatures: That’s where we need to be pointing the finger,” Scott said. “What are they doing to try to help us? What are they allowing to happen that’s harming us? Where’s the accountability?”
Capital B staff writer Adam Mahoney contributed to this report.