The movement of black South Carolinians to the suburbs is reshaping Palmetto State politics.
The question is: What will be the result?
One possibility is fewer African-American state legislators - as the urban and rural districts that they represent depopulate - and more politically moderate suburban districts, threatening some Republican incumbents.
"South Carolina living is becoming more integrated," said Rep. Jim Harrison, the Richland Republican who chairs the House committee that will use census data to draw new election districts. "It's a good thing."
According to U.S. census data, more black South Carolinians are calling the suburbs home. Suburban neighborhoods in Richland, Dorchester, Florence, Spartanburg and Lexington counties saw the state's largest increase in the number of black residents between 2000 and 2010, according to that data.
Those gains came largely at the expense of urban and rural communities in Richland, Spartanburg and Charleston counties, which lost black residents.
The shift of black residents to the suburbs from urban and rural enclaves is an issue because the S.C. Legislature this year, as it does once a decade, must redraw the political boundaries of state House and Senate districts, as well as congressional districts, to ensure that each has roughly equal populations.
But the federal Voting Rights Act puts strict limits on how new district lines can be drawn. In particular, that law seeks to ensure that lines aren't drawn to diminish the political influence of a demographic group, in particular African-Americans in the South.
That will create political and legal problems this year.
Census data shows some S.C. House districts that have lost the most black residents are represented by black lawmakers, all Democrats. Meanwhile, some of the districts that have seen the greatest increase in the number of black residents are those represented by white lawmakers, most always Republicans.
The suburban migration is part of a two-decade trend, said Todd Shaw, a political science and African-American studies professor at the University of South Carolina.
In some cases, black residents are moving because they are earning more money and can afford to live in better neighborhoods with better schools. In other cases, Shaw said, black residents have moved because of rising costs in their old neighborhoods, some of which have been gentrified as more and more white South Carolinians move back into downtown urban areas.
The result "is a greater degree of African-American presence in counties," as opposed to cities, Shaw said. "That is an important implication as we're doing reapportionment."
Concerns about future for black pols
Politically, the movement by black South Carolinians to the suburbs could cost some incumbent African-American legislators elected from depopulating districts their jobs.
"It's raising some real questions about the African-American community's political future," said Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, referring to the record number of black representatives now in the Legislature. "Will events conspire to change that?"
Neal thinks black residents are not dispersing but, instead, reconcentrating themselves in new communities such as House District 79, which includes Spring Valley and other Northeast Richland neighborhoods.
That district had been represented in the House by a Republican. But, in 2009, the district elected a black Democrat.
Other once-Republican House districts also are seeing an influx of new African-American residents, traditionally Democrats.
USC's Shaw says that population shift could mean that those traditionally Republican-controlled districts will become more moderate politically.
For example, Rep. Nathan Ballentine's northwest Richland County House district saw the ninth-highest growth in black residents in the state during the past decade.
Ballentine, a Republican from Irmo, said the reason is simple. "People move to our area because of the schools."
There has been so much movement that Ballentine's District 71 has about 8,000 people more than the new ideal population of a House district, 37,301. But neighboring District 73, represented by Rep. Chris Hart, D-Richland, is about 6,000 people under that ideal and could add some parts of Ballentine's current district to get its numbers up.
Rep. Todd Rutherford's Columbia district is at the other end of the spectrum, losing almost 4,500 black residents over the past 10 years. The reason? One factor is that the city used federal money to redevelop a former housing project, moving nearly 1,000 residents to the suburbs.
Still, Rutherford, a Democrat, is less concerned that redistricting might reduce the number of black lawmakers. "I just haven't seen the numbers that suggest it's easy to do that."
Harrison, head of the House committee handling redistricting, said questions about how shifting demographics affect minority representatives and incumbents will be part of the redistricting debate.
"It is harder to create minority districts," Harrison said of the new census results. But, he added, the task is not insurmountable.
South Carolina's redistricting proposal must be reviewed by the federal Justice Department. Any plan that does not maintain proportional representation -in a state that is almost 30 percent African-American - faces being struck down.
The redistricting plan also is likely to be challenged in court.
For now, Harrison, Rutherford and others say lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see approach while the state House and Senate conduct public hearings and gather facts before drafting a redistricting plan.