Over the course of the last three redistricting cycles in Massachusetts, African Americans have been met with disappointment, disbelief and disenfranchisement.
Expecting a fair and transparent process that would increase its political influence, the black community, along with Asians and Latinos, has instead witnessed systematic attempts to undercut its political and civic potential through race based gerrymandering, blatant Beacon Hill refusals, and political deal-making by outside organizations.
To its credit, the black community has found legal remedy in the federal courts, which have overturned Statehouse redistricting plans designed only to protect incumbents and dilute minority voter cohesion.
The most recent federal court intervention was witnessed in 2004 when the state’s redistricting plan was struck down based upon voting rights abuse claims made on behalf of the black community. During that case Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran was charged with lying about his role in weakening black state representative districts in Dorchester and Mattapan. The speaker eventually pleaded guilty to perjury and resigned from his house seat.
In the redistricting process now underway, much is at stake in breaking through the status quo to achieve voting equity for the communities of color. The Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition (MBEC) was formed under the guidance of the New Democracy Coalition late last year to provide a community-based strategy to address the decade’s long redistricting problems.
After an exhaustive statewide process, the MBEC has offered the following solutions:
• A new statewide redistricted map that will allow for the election of 10 more Statehouse seats for communities of color, creating a potential African American seat in Boston, Springfield and a Latino state Senate seat in Lawrence. If the state’s committee on redistricting adopted the MBEC map, new state representative seats would be created in Brockton, Springfield, Lawrence and Chelsea. In total, the number of minority members in the Statehouse would double.
• A new congressional district created around protected voting rights classes such as black, Latinos and Asians could result in an incumbent-free congressional district and allow for the likelihood that an African American can be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time. By creating the new congressional district, currently divided African American communities in Boston and Brockton can be reunited and protected under the 1965 Voting Right Act.
• A redrawn state district system based upon fair power-sharing in which minorities will make way for the development of more robust forms of democratic action at the grassroots level. By organizing voters and residents through newly created election districts, communities of color can build their capacity for civic and electoral self-determination and independence.
Let’s be clear: The Massachusetts congressional, state senatorial and state representative districts belong to the people of Massachusetts, not incumbent elected officials who naturally try to protect their interests in this process. A true redistricting map must reflect the diversity of the districts and provide protection for those who have been historically disenfranchised.
Now is also the time for communities of color to engage the redistricting process with a high degree of organization and power. It is particularly critical that black-led organizations, activists, elected officials and faith leaders which are based in the black community take command of this issue as it relates to the development of new political and electoral influence statewide.
An independent black effort working in coordination with Latino, Asian and liberal progressives can pave the way to new and more robust political arrangements.
Professor Tony Van Der Meer, a senior lecturer at UMass Boston, is a founder and co-chair of the Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition for Redistricting.