Redistricting opportunities for minorities

The process could boost minority political power in Massachusetts

In the redistricting process now underway, the state’s minority groups are poised to reshape significantly how they are represented in every elected office from selectman to state senator, from school committee member to the US House of Representatives. But to achieve a political makeover of such scale, minority communities must coalesce around electoral goals and actively engage in the process to remedy past setbacks while eyeing new electoral possibilities.

The political fortunes of blacks, Latinos, and Asians in Massachusetts have been buoyed in recent years with two firsts: a black governor and a black president. The electoral successes of Governor Patrick and President Obama say much about how the country and the Commonwealth are progressing along the lines of racial and political tolerance and reflect the general acceptance of ethnic minorities into the main thoroughfares of public life.  But blacks, Asians, and Latinos remain starkly underrepresented in elected offices in Massachusetts and often face daunting challenges in their efforts to change this.  To achieve political and electoral equality in Massachusetts minorities groups must actively engage in recalibrating the state’s political map so that they are proportionally represented in elected offices.

Minority groups are particularly well positioned to enhance their electoral potential during the redistricting process because of the enormous growth in the state’s minority populations during the last decade.  According to Census data, the state’s Latino and Asian populations both soared by 46 percent over the last decade, while the black population rose 26 percent, The state’s Latino and Asian populations both soared by 46 percent over the last decade, while the black population rose 26 percent with a notably sharp rise in blacks in Boston.  

The US Constitution requires that political districts be redrawn every decade for every elected office to ensure equal representation and fair apportionment for all residents.  Along with key provisions from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, redistricting ensures protection for minority groups and even allows expanding their political power, if necessary.  Blacks, Latinos, and Asians have felt the unfortunate downside of the redistricting process in Massachusetts, with districts redrawn in the past in ways that diluted minority-voting power. The last redistricting effort prompted a successful federal lawsuit challenging the drawing of state representative districts because of its treatment of minority voters. 

Several minority-led groups have already begun the work of ensuring that minority-voter interests are part of the redistricting equation this cycle. The Boston-based Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition, formed by New Democracy Coalition, is successfully building partnerships with groups in Brockton, Springfield, Worcester, Lawrence, Fall River, and other cities, with the goal of advocating for local and regional voting divisions that proportionally reflect the black, Latino and Asian presence across the Commonwealth. Oiste, a statewide Latino political group, has begun grassroots outreach efforts in Lawrence and Lowell.  Finally, FairDistictsMass.Org, a newly launched nonpartisan initiative focused on the redistricting process, brings capacity to carry out research, district mapping, and legal strategy. 

As the process unfolds, communities of color would do well to consider three broad areas.

First, these communities should employ a multi-racial redistricting campaign strategy that looks at reshaping existing majority-minority districts for the purposes of reuniting “cracked” neighborhoods that have been divided between districts.  Cracked civic zones can dilute political power by fragmenting the voting clout of communities that share social, economic, or demographic characteristics. 

The 7th Suffolk House District in Boston is an example of the harmful effects of cracking.  Once a state representative district that covered the Highland Park and Sugar Hill neighborhoods of Roxbury, where voters shared similar concerns and community objectives, the former 7th Suffolk District is now split unnaturally and included in the districts of three Boston state representatives: Gloria Fox, Liz Malia, and Carlos Henriquez.  While the immediate response may be that the neighborhoods now have three state representatives, the reality is that neighborhood is politically fractured and fails to garner the complete attention and allegiance of any of the three representatives.  As district maps are redrawn this year, careful consideration should be given to ensuring that civic cores remain intact within redrawn districts, based on natural neighborhood, political, social, and cultural boundaries.  

Second, minority groups should look for every opportunity to build new districts by consolidating minority neighborhoods in order to create new opportunities for emerging groups where possible. Cities such as Springfield, Lowell, and Lawrence have seen an increases in black, Latino and Asian voters over the last decade.  These minority groups have settled into densely populated areas of cities in ways that allow new political districts to be drawn in neighborhoods that would otherwise be dispersed into majority white districts.  While electoral “packing” might work against minority groups in some instances by overly concentrating minorities in fewer districts, this strategy works positively in situations where minority groups are emerging in new areas by grouping them in single districts that could yield minority representation in that area for the first time.

For instance, in Brockton, redistricting could create a new state representative seat anchored by the bourgeoning Cape Verdean, African-American, Latino and Haitian populations on the south side of the city.  Brockton, now a majority-minority city, is also ripe for redistricting that might allow more minority representation on the city’s school committee and more substantive influence in the elected ward committee structure in the city. The election two years ago of the city’s first African-American city councilor signaled new possibilities for the emergence of a minority political power in Brockton.  

In Lawrence, Latinos now make up a super-majority of the residents, accounting for twice the number of blacks, whites and Asians, combined.  Hispanics in Lawrence have honed their political potential in successfully in electing the city’s first Latino state representative and mayor during the last decade.  But the absence of Latinos on the city’s school committee may represent a new target for residents.  Its elected school committee districts may be ripe for redrawing in ways that would make it more possible for Latino representation on the panel to reflect the population make-up of the city.  

Perhaps the most sought after prize for minority groups in the state should be a congressional seat anchored in Boston or emanating out of Suffolk County.  In light of the increase in citizens of voting age in Suffolk Country, minorities may now have a numerical and strong legal case for aggressively seeking a district likely elect a person of color to Congress.  While many may have touted this as a reality of the 8th Congressional District lines drawn a decade ago, a true majority-minority district did not truly emerge until the end of the last decade as thousands of new citizens moved into the district and significant numbers of eligible minorities reached voting age.

According to the recently released Census data, the 8th Congressional District, which comprises Cambridge, Chelsea, Somerville, and large portions of Boston was among the fastest growing political districts in the Commonwealth, with minority groups representing a quickly growing demographic. Boston, which is now fractured between two different congressional representatives, is comprised of a majority of various minority groups, led by blacks, Latinos and Asians. 

In this regard two potential scenarios for majority-minority congressional districts exist. A serious statistical case can now be made for creating a substantive majority-minority seat from Suffolk County, where nearly 400,000 eligible blacks, Latinos and Asians reside, with blacks representing the largest minority group. During the last round of redistricting, such a district existed on paper numerically. But because so many residents in this district were not citizens or of the voting age, mobilization around a congressional seat was effectively impossible.  In this year’s redistricting – which will require increasing the number of people per district to approximately 770,000 residents because of the state’s loss of a congressional seat – a district could be crafted that includes all of Chelsea and only certain areas of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.  This incarnation of a majority-minority district will necessarily sacrifice some white liberal and working-class areas of Boston such as Allston-Brighton, East Dorchester, the Back Bay and the North End.  It would also require grafting into it majority-minority census tracts in Dorchester (south and slightly east of Codman Square), all of Mattapan and extending the district into numerous precincts of Hyde Park and Roslindale that now are apart of the 9th Congressional District.  Also added into such a district would be Everett, Malden, and Revere.

Under the second scenario, a dramatically new congressional seat can be constructed from the greater Boston minority communities by drawing a district that encompasses all of the black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods in Boston and Cambridge and linking them to the contiguous towns south of Boston such as Milton, Randolph, Canton, Holbrook, Stoughton and Brockton. 

Electing a person of color to Congress from such as newly converted seat would depend on a highly motivated and organized coalition of minority voters – and it would depend on those voters agreeing that elected a minority candidate is an overriding priority.

Finally, the coalition of minority groups should work to ensure that incarcerated individuals are counted as citizens in their home neighborhoods and not in prisons or at houses of corrections, which is the current practice.  Prison-based gerrymandering effectively depopulates urban political districts when inmates from the inner-city are counted as residents in prison facilities located in suburban communities.  This policy has an additional negative impact on the Commonwealth.  The suburban districts where prisons are located unfairly possess political advantages over neighboring communities since they benefit by counting prisoners as residents.  

Currently, state representative and state senate districts across Massachusetts are made up of incarcerated residents who are counted as residents but are not accorded the right to vote.  Because a disproportionate percentage of prisoners are black and Latino, current redistricting practices negatively impact urban neighborhoods, where they are not counted. The incarcerated do not lose their status as citizens in their home neighborhoods as they pay their debts to society, and they should be counted, for redistricting purposes, as residents of their home community.  

Success on any of these redistricting fronts will not come easily. The state is due to lose one congressional seat due to reapportionment, potentially sparking an internecine war among incumbent representatives. Similar scenarios could be set in motion by new districts proposed by minority advocates that aim to create districts for state legislative seats and municipal offices that will optimize minority voting power. 

Meet the Author

The stakes for minority groups during the upcoming redistricting process are high.  But minority groups are now poised to organize and advocate in ways not witnessed in many decades. The current electoral environment seems ripe for real and lasting gains that will change the landscape of our politics for decades to come. 

Kevin C. Peterson, a senior fellow at the Center for Collaborative Leadership at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is founder and director of New Democracy Coalition and co-chair of the Mass Black Empowerment Coalition.