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Community Voices: Growing diversity demands dramatic redistricting reform

Kevin C. Peterson | 5/30/2012, 7:46 a.m.

The emerging demography of Boston over the two last decades has virtually transformed the city’s neighborhoods, creating new social and electoral enclaves in communities that were once racially, culturally and economically monolithic.

Increased diversity in the city is critically relevant in the redistricting process now underway within the Boston City Council. Reapportionment outcomes will either negatively or positively impact the political future of historically disenfranchised groups.

The current Boston City Council district design is woefully broken. This is a testament of decades of willful voter suppression, effectively retardingthe civic capabilities of communities already seized by unrelenting poverty, violence and under-performing public schools.

A review of recent redistricting history in Boston is instructive: In 1982 the city of Boston converted to a hybrid city council representation system that allowed for a mix of elected districts and at-large seats. The logic of this momentous change responded to empirically clear evidence that so-called minorities were not adequately represented within the city council body and that the voting strength of these constituencies were severely diluted.

By creating district representation, African American, Latino and Asian voting communities increased their electoral opportunities to vote for those they felt best expressed their political interests. The result has been the election of two black city councilors in the so-called majority-minority districts.

In the 30 years since these changes, the city has continued to transform racially. Yet, redistricting practices have failed to comprehensively capture the substantive shifts in demography.

The result has been uneven political power-sharing between so-called minority communities and intransient white voting blocs. Moreover, the spirit of the 1982 effort ensuring equal inclusion of so-called minorities within elected municipal politics has ostensibly been jettisoned.

Addressing the issue of political fairness and electoral equity within the city council’s district system ought to be prioritized by the city’s redistricting committee and the broader public. In this context, a number of concerns deserve our consideration.

First, it is critical to communities of color that their numerical presence in the city be fully recognized as council districts are redesigned. People of color comprise a clear numerical majority of residents in Boston. Yet the configuration of existing districts do not allow for the fullest expression of their voting capacity. Districts are now designed in such fashions that the electoral influence of so-called minorities are drastically suppressed. Fair consideration of people of color during the redistricting process would remedy this problem. The council is urged to recalibrate district seats against a backdrop of racial and political equality. Avoiding racial gerrymandering is of the utmost importance.

Second, guaranteeing and advancing the voting rights of historically disenfranchised groups — including African Americans, Asians and Latinos — is paramount. We should be ever mindful that these protected class groups are covered by the U.S. Constitution and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

As it is now, only two of the nine city council districts are arranged in ways that allow for the maximum expression of voting rights for people of color. It is demonstrably clear, however, that an additional three districts can be reconstructed in ways that would allow for a total of five “true” districts of color where voter strength is not diluted. A district that would give voters a preference to elect a Latino or Asian to the city council should appeal to us as compelling. This would be fair and legally defensible.

Third, efforts should be directed toward keeping communities of interest intact, especially if they pertain to protecting the voting strength of so-called minorities. Under the current district plan the black neighborhood of Mattapan is cracked or split in two. Because Mattapan is unique and comprised of distinct challenges that intersect with issues related to perennial evidence of racial bias, it is best included in a singular council district. This is also the case with Chinatown. While neighborhood cohesion is important in the redistricting process, the protection of voting rights for so-called minorities trump all.

Allocating political power on the basis of population shifts and racial equity ought to be our commitment during the remainder of the redistricting process in Boston. Focuses on these concerns will respond to the obvious ethnic and racial transformation occurring in Boston.


Kevin C. Peterson is the director of the New Democracy Coalition, which focuses its efforts in the area of civic literacy, civic policy and electoral justice. This opinion editorial is an expanded version of a letter sent to the Boston City Council.