A couple of weeks ago, the fate of African American political representation in California remained uncertain as the Redistricting Commission prepared to approve or reject its final maps. Although the threats of potential lawsuits remain to be seen, African Americans are now heaving a collective sigh of relief after successfully defending and preserving our political representation statewide.
This fight was bigger than just preserving the raw numbers of black elected officials. This was a battle against organized forces that wished to turn back the clock on civil rights and progressive politics.
Blacks’ Supposed Decline in California
For years political pundits and certain sectors of the media, have reported with barely contained glee about the supposed decline of the African American population in California. Typically these discussions have led to speculation (perhaps fantasies) about how these demographic changes will lead to a decline in black political leadership.
Proponents of this viewpoint saw this year’s redistricting process as a golden opportunity to take action. This was their chance to spin the narrative of “a declining black population” into permanent changes in political boundaries that would lead to the disenfranchisement of black voters. If these black districts were eliminated, it would be near impossible to get them back.
The redistricting process became a battlefield, a front for those hoping to declare the “death of black leadership.” The blows came from all directions. The media led with sensationalized predictions that African Americans would end up as losers in the redistricting process. The Los Angeles Times quoted a member of the Redistricting Commission saying, “It’s … painful. It’s very hard for people to accept changing demographics.” The message between the lines in all the reporting was that “their time is over.”
Immediately there were signs that something funny was afoot in the actual Redistricting Commission’s meetings. Early on in the process, a group of African American residents from the district of Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters testified before the commission.
After the group testified, one Republican member of the commission accused them of being “political operatives” sent by Waters. The GOP member urged the rest of the commission to disregard their testimony. Residents from all backgrounds, races and ethnicities, had testified that day, yet this was the only group singled out for discriminated. The Republican commissioner offered no evidence to support this claim.
Other shenanigans persisted. For example, the Mayor of Hawthorne appeared midway through the process to declare, much to the surprise of anyone who has ever looked at a map, that landlocked Hawthorne is a “beach-city” and should be grouped with its more affluent neighbors to the west.
The results of such a shift would have been drastic and disturbed the delicate balance of the African American population in Southeast Los Angeles County. Grouping Hawthorne with the western coastal communities would have led to a decline in African American representation. The move was a direct attack again on Rep. Waters’ district.
Not surprisingly, conservative members of the commission picked up this strange claim and ran with the “Hawthorne is a beach city” mantra until they were defeated when the final maps were approved.
Fortunately, a coalition of African American leaders and community organizations came together early in the process to form the African American Redistricting Collaborative (AARC).
AARC was able to anticipate these attacks, prepare and mobilize black communities, engage attorneys to provide a legal basis for our position, and ultimately preserve all of the current black districts in California.
Additionally, there are new State Senate and Assembly districts where an African American candidate can run competitively. The Redistricting Commission listened to our collective voices and approved a final map that preserves African American political representation.
As we celebrate these accomplishments, it is important to step back and reflect on what this victory was all about. African Americans have always sided with issues of equality and have reliably provided the bedrock of progressive coalitions.
Examples range from the 1960s, when New York’s Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. helped carry forward much of the Great Society and War on Poverty legislation in the 1960s, to today, when Reps. Waters and Barbara Lee have consistently stood up as voices and votes against U.S. military aggression.
Last but not least, there’s Barack Obama, who first reached office in an Illinois State Senate seat that was specifically drawn to give an African American the chance to get elected.
Today we celebrate a small victory in the larger war for equality and civil rights. However, the struggle continues, and we now must use this opportunity to push for policies and changes that will make a real difference in the lives of people in our communities.
We must fight for jobs, quality education and the preservation of the social safety net to protect the sick and most vulnerable. With redistricting we have secured a seat at the table, but now as a community we must organize to make sure there is a full spread of food.
Marqueece Harris-Dawson is president and CEO of Community Coalition.
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