Drawing districts to deepen divides?
By Michael Benjamin
Feb. 28, 2012
It looks increasingly like a court-appointed special master will have to draw the new map for New York’s congressional districts. Will that plan reflect reality as well as federal law? That test is apparently too tough for the state lawmakers whose duty it is to set the new lines — but who seem more focused on carving out racial and ethnic silos.
The big sticking point centers on Rep. Charles Rangel, whose Harlem district has fallen from 47 percent black in 1980 to 26.5 percent in 2010. The state NAACP and other Rangel supporters want a redistricting plan that preserves a “black” district in Harlem by reaching a long tentacle through The Bronx and into Mount Vernon in Westchester.
But, in a rival map, Dominican-American politicians want a piece of the West Bronx for a district of their own, which would stretch into Washington Heights in Manhattan and then to Jackson Heights and Corona, Queens. In support of this, the Dominican ambassador to the US has actually written Gov. Cuomo asking him to “open the opportunity to elect a congressman of Dominican origin to the US Congress.” Such an intervention would be appalling from any foreign representative. Coming from a diplomat whose country is disenfranchising countless citizens of Haitian descent, it’s obscene. But it’s far from the only outrage here.
Proponents of the Rangel plan argue that, under the Voting Rights Act, redistricting must preserve a black district — in effect, that the lines must ensure that Rangel’s district is black-held forever.
This is crazy: White gentrification and an exploding Hispanic population have racially integrated the district; there’s been no government effort to diminish black political participation; Black Harlemites voluntarily moved away. (In 2009 alone, more than 44,000 black New Yorkers left the state.)
Sorry. The purpose of the Voting Rights Act can’t possibly be to undo the effects of voluntary integration. Indeed, Juan Cartagena of the group LatinoJustice argues that the VRA bars efforts (like the Rangel plan) that would dilute the area’s existing Hispanic plurality. That position makes eminent sense — but it has few backers among state politicians, who fear upsetting Rep. Rangel and the black leadership in this city.