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Redistricting plan needed for black community

Kevin C. Peterson
Redistricting plan needed for black community

Unless something dramatic occurs over the next week, the Boston City Council will vote into law redistricting legislation that will effectively suppress black, Latino and Asian political power in the city for the next decade; retard the civic and electoral formation of communities of color and significantly alter the political preconditions that would lead to the election of the city’s first black mayor.

The council’s vote in support of a flawed law is based upon a mixed brew of political self-interest, purposeful electoral manipulation and a willful disposition to deny people of color their right to equal representation on the city council.  

For these reasons, Mayor Thomas Menino should feel compelled again to reject the Boston City Council’s redistricting law and create a plan that reflects the diversity of the city.

There are three reasons why the Boston City Council plan is politically and morally wrong.

First, the city council’s redistricting plan is regressive and embraces the political status quo by protecting white incumbents and supporting the current power structure in the city. The council’s redistricting map — which has been influenced greatly by organizations that include the Boston NAACP, The Chinese Progressive Association and Project Hip Hop — mutes the potential power of historically disenfranchised groups currently protected under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

If demography is destiny in the effort of redistricting, then the Boston City Council’s map is an example of blatant political nullification as it denies blacks, Latinos and Asians access to political power by denying them opportunities to elect candidates of their choice.

Second, the Boston City Council map and the NAACP’s redistricting plan are severely conservative and fail to seriously create immediate opportunities for black, Latino and Asian voters.  People of color represent 53 percent of the city’s population. Yet only 22 percent of district city councillors are black. None are Asian. None are Latino.

Moreover, the Boston City Council and the NAACP erroneously believe that only four majority districts of color are possible, when it is clear that five districts are possible.    

Members of the council and the NAACP Boston branch both believe that by changing a precinct here and a precinct there, real gains can be made for people of color over time. They say they believe that placing Mattapan in a Hyde Park-dominated district will lead to the defeat of the current incumbent, Councillor Robert Consalvo. 

Yet, their logic is flawed and is rendered untenable when confronted by historical trends. Since the district system was created nearly three decades ago, there have been 135 separate district council races. Only three of those races have resulted in the defeat of an incumbent. Under this scenario the NAACP Boston map and the Boston City Council map would result in no immediate remedy for the black community.

What then should be supported?

The Boston City Council and groups such as the Boston NAACP should redirect their current stance and support a redistricting map that calls for five districts of color and not four. The diversity in the city now demands this.

A map presented by City Councillor Charles Yancey does this precisely by providing a fifth district of color while also reordering District 3 in Dorchester and District 5 in Hyde Park so that they have higher percentages of people of color.  The Yancey map will also call for immediate district change and not depend on years of waiting and voter mobilization to defeat an incumbent.

Furthermore, by organizing people of color in districts where they are most organized as voters and not subject to domination by strong and highly active white voting blocs, the conditions for electing the first black mayor of Boston is set in place.  The redistricting plan articulated by the Boston City Council and the NAACP maintains the status quo and keeps communities of color divided.

In 1983, city charter reform resulted in the creation of districts so that more minorities could be represented on the Boston City Council. Those effects have not been achieved because of failed redistricting efforts that have kept the city council disproportionately white and male.

Change is needed. Support for five districts over four districts is the only pathway to achieve these important progressive results.

Kevin C. Peterson is executive director of The New Democracy Coalition, which focuses on civic policy, civic literacy and electoral justice.