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Community Voices: Redistricting should protect minority voting rights

Kevin C. Peterson | 9/13/2011, 11:16 p.m.

The redistricting process now underway in our state presents great opportunities to correct forms of electoral injustice that ostensibly function as civic barriers for millions of minorities. These barriers persist as roadblocks that impede full political participation for blacks, Latinos and Asians in mainstream civil society. They serve as stumbling blocks and impediments that stunt the efforts of public engagement among the poor and foster social alienation, distrust and cynicism toward government.

Consider this inconvenient truth: Minorities in this state now make up 20 percent of its diversity, but are only 5 percent of the elected officials in the Statehouse. Add to this an unfortunate legacy of contentious litigation forced by minority citizens about voting rights over the last four decades.

The Black Political Task Force was compelled to sue the Secretary of the Commonwealth in 1988 over redistricting infractions that clearly violated voting rights. In 1993, The Black Political Task Force filed suit again on matters of voter disenfranchisement. A Latino voting rights group filed claims in federal court against the City of Lawrence in 2002 regarding language ballot access improprieties.

In 2003, The Black Political Task Force sued Secretary of State William Galvin on unfairly drawn state representative districts. And in 2005 the Chinese Progressive Association bought claims to federal judges that the City of Boston had violated the rights of Asian voters. Sadly, in each of these cases, minority claims were confirmed by the federal courts.  

In 2011, the stakes are high for communities of color during the redistricting process. This is because in the past, the state redistricting committees have wittingly or unwittingly “cracked” and “packed” communities of color in such ways that minorities were denied the opportunity to elect representation in proportion to their real and aggregate numbers.

Put simply, the natural political influence and voting strength of minorities have been diluted decade after decade in the Commonwealth, even as the minority presence has increased significantly. According to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, this practice of “packing” and “cracking” for the purposes of preserving political incumbency and racial advantage is wrong because it unfairly suppresses the political expression of racial minorities, subjugating them to the will and whim of historically privileged and powerful white majorities.

Over the years, minority voters have systematically been assigned into districts where their vote has diminished power. The effects of this unfortunate practice among minorities have led to political indifference, low voter participation rates and cynicism toward government. To be sure, racial gerrymandering in Massachusetts is a ritual profoundly practiced. For the sake of all citizens it should cease; and these facts should compel us to act.

The growth of the minority community in the Commonwealth over the last decade has been substantial. The Latino and Asian communities grew by 46 percent respectively. And the African American community increased statewide by 26 percent. Cape Verdeans, Haitians, Africans, Chinese and Vietnamese now comprise a vibrant mix of immigrants throughout the state.

Such cities as Springfield, Brockton, Randolph and Chelsea are now populated by majority-minority residents. Cities such as Worcester and Lynn are now significantly influenced by growing minority sub-populations. In light of such growth, redistricting justice on behalf of minorities is not only fair, it’s necessary. It is not only a practical thing to do, its the right thing to do.