The Black leadership of New York dropped the ball, and now we all need to take responsibility for it. A grave miscalculation was made, and the planning and preparation for redistricting did not start early enough. Now, we may lose a Black congressional district that has been the centerpiece of history for Black America.
For more than 50 years, an African-American has represented the capital of Black America–Harlem–in Congress. First, it was the legendary and charismatic Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who, as the first and for many years only African-American in Congress, spoke for the interest of our people on a national stage. For more than four decades now, it has been the great Charlie Rangel.
Every 10 years, America is counted. After it is counted, new congressional and legislative districts are drawn across the country. This year, because of some political considerations, that process has become a bit tricky. New York state–and upstate in particular–did not grow as fast as other parts of the country, so we will lose two congressional seats. At the same time, the minority population has greatly increased, leaving the number of registered Republicans at one of the lowest percentages in memory.
In New York, it is the responsibility of the state Senate, which has a Republican majority, to create the state Senate lines, and of the Assembly, which has a Democratic majority, to draw the Assembly lines. Both must collaborate to draw the congressional lines.
Of course, both sides want to best protect their interests. And with these partisan bodies drawing the lines, there are protections built in for their incumbents, while at the same time trying to create even more seats for their party.
While there has been much talk about the congressional lines in New York, the focus has not been on what is best for communities of color–on ensuring that our people get their fair share of representation and the resources that go along with that representation. With the state having a more than 40 percent minority population, and with most of that population concentrated downstate, things are getting particularly interesting.
In the most recent map that was drawn, a collaboration between the Senate and Assembly, they have taken a 41-year congressman and doubled his Hispanic population compared to the Black population. As those of us who have lived and worked in a shared neighborhood know, there is and has been a delicate conversation going on between African-Americans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans for more than a generation in neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
On two occasions, federal magistrates further divvied the communities by proposing a congressional district that is 55 percent Hispanic and 25 percent Black. If these lines stand, there is a threat that Harlem and the Bronx will lose a Black representative, bringing New York’s total number of Black representatives in Congress to three instead of four. This despite the fact New York State still has more Black people living here than any other state in the union. With more than 3 million Blacks in the state and with our high voting rate, this alone is a travesty.
And while there is a need for more Latino representation from the state and city, the plan put forward by the federal judge would pit Dominicans against African-Americans, creating a rift between communities that need to be allies.
As such, Black and Dominican leaders, along with Puerto Rican leaders from the Bronx, have met over the last couple of weeks to work out a plan that would have accommodated a new congressional seat carved out for the Dominican population, the first of its kind in the country, and continued the legacy of a Black seat in Harlem that would include Co-op City in the Bronx and Mt. Vernon in Westchester.
The county leader of Manhattan, Assemblyman Keith Wright, and Bronx County Leader Assemblyman Carl Heastie have devised a map that would serve the needs of everyone. It would require other congressional districts to change their population by about 20,000 voters, less than 3 percent of their total voters. There would be no risk to their base or their electability, and yet it seems that some members of the New York State congressional delegation are not actively behind this plan, which would ensure that the delegation would have the kind of Black and Hispanic representation that it deserves–more, not less.
Rangel, who has served admirably for over four decades, is not blameless in this situation. Reportedly, he has publicly stated that he would do whatever it takes to maintain a Black seat but has privately resisted every attempt to draw lines into the Bronx and Westchester. Now that his seat is imperiled, he is cooperating with the other leaders.
And so that is the political quandary we find ourselves in.
In the short term, the answer seems to be a veto by the governor of the lines proposed by the Legislature to give the congressional redistricting process another chance to play out. With a gubernatorial veto, the decision will lie with the courts. The courts have a legal mandate under the Civil Rights Act to protect the voting rights of Blacks and Hispanics, rights that all too often the Legislature seems willing to ignore.
The great shame of this whole process is that the redistricting maps that Hazel Dukes, the NAACP and John Flateau created months ago worked. If we had stood by those maps as a unified people, we would not be in this situation today.
Mr. Governor, veto these lines. Our communities deserve better.