At the high school I attended in northern Durham, there was a section of the student parking lot widely known as “Redneck Row.”

The name, I assume, was inspired by the procession of Chevy Silverados and Ford F-150s—most with lifted suspensions and Confederate flags mounted in their flatbeds—that parked there each day.

Met first by Redneck Row, a visitor might make a quick assumption about the demographics of the student body, but later realize that this is the same school where posters for the Queer-Straight Alliance decorate the walls; where students have staged walkouts to voice support for reproductive rights, protest the Trump Administration, and condemn a Honduran classmate’s pending deportation; where a journalism class printed the first bilingual student newspaper in the state; and where more than 80 percent of enrollees are students of color.

I thought about my high school as I read a recent New York Times op-ed by Frank Bruni, where Bruni describes having to drive just 15 miles through North Carolina’s newly redrawn 13th Congressional district “to see two versions of America — and to see them at war.”

After stopping at a vegan- and LGBTQ-friendly coffee shop in solidly blue Garner, he travels a few miles east to the town of Clayton, where houses are tricked out with Trump flags and signs that read “Wake Up People.”

Like Redneck Row and the rest of my student parking lot, the towns are adjacent but disparate, with a Venn diagram so diverged that their only shared quality is being located in the state of North Carolina. 

Bruni, a longtime Times contributor, attended undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill and moved back to the Triangle last year to teach journalism and public policy at Duke. Since returning to North Carolina, he writes, “I’ve been struck by the uncanny way in which it finds itself at the center of national events and is confronted by the same big questions that the country is.”

It’s a state where partisan judicial elections and extreme gerrymandering threaten to destroy representative democracy, allowing for leaders that neither reflect nor report to their constituency; where residents are split so evenly down the middle that they simultaneously went for Trump and re-elected a Democratic governor in 2020; and, perhaps most notably, where nearly everyone lives in a bubble of red or blue.

“I had the vague idea of finding, within a roughly 25-minute drive of Duke’s campus in Durham, some kind of political mix that reflected the state’s reputed political color,” Bruni writes. “I like purple. But I learned how inexact the “purple” label is. It implies some real blending of red and blue, some halfway point. But North Carolina is purple only if you step far back, the way you do to make sense of a Seurat painting, so that you no longer see the individual dabs and blotches of red and blue.”

North Carolina’s political turmoil hasn’t prevented an influx of new residents, he notes; people are growingly drawn to the state’s natural beauty, high-profile universities, and burgeoning tech scene.

When they get here, they just have to decide which area of the lot they want to park in.

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