The Politico article about which I wrote last time does far more than simply report on and analyze black flight from major cities like Chicago. Much of the piece concerns the impact of that flight on Chicago’s politics that is heightened by a coincident increase in the Hispanic population. There still aren’t as many Latinos as there are blacks, but the trends are clear – fewer blacks, more Latinos.
Following the census of 2020 and the redrawing of electoral districts, conflicts between the two dominant minorities in the city have broken out.
Latino council members, armed with fresh census data showing its population is up 5 percent and the Black population is down nearly 10 percent, filed a map with the city clerk’s office last week that includes 15 Latino wards — one more than it has now — and two fewer Black majority wards. The Black Caucus has worked with the City Council’s Rules Committee on a map that includes 16 majority Black wards (and one predominantly Black ward) and 14 Latino wards.
In short, there’s a squabble brewing over how to gerrymander districts to ensure the election of certain numbers of black and Latino City Council members, the underlying idea being that black or Latino voters are effectively disenfranchised if they don’t have a black or Latino council member representing them. Seemingly, a white or Asian can’t do the job.
That notion is a holdover from the civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s when it had some legitimacy. For far too long, white elected officials had done a very poor job of representing – or even listening to – their black or Latino constituents. That was in part because those voters were usually a small minority in voting districts and therefore commanded little attention from officials. The solution was to gerrymander political districts at all levels in order to ensure majority black or Hispanic districts that would then ensure the election of black or Hispanic leaders.
Now, racial gerrymandering is constitutionally tricky. Supreme Court jurisprudence holds that using race as the “predominant factor” in drawing electoral districts renders the resulting plan unconstitutional. Nevertheless, exactly that is done as the Politico piece makes clear. The issue in Chicago is not whether to racially gerrymander Council seats, but how best to do so.
That urges the question whether the practice is still necessary. After all, white voters frequently elect black candidates in elections large and small, a sea-change since the 60s. Why not dispense with the bizarrely configured voting districts so drawn to achieve a particular racial/ethnic result? Why not assume that a black elected official can represent, not just the blacks in his/her district, but the whites, Latinos, Asians, etc. as well? Why not assume a white, Latino or Asian officeholder can do the same? In the process, why not simply draw district lines based solely on population numbers?
It’s not a difficult concept. In fact, it’s the core concept of representative democracy. One of the main benefits of doing so would be our open acknowledgement that we are a nation, not some loose collection of tribes, one of whose gain must inevitably be another’s loss.
But the political power structures of black and Latino communities in Chicago are having none of it.
Alderman Jason Ervin, who heads the City Council’s Black Caucus, takes issue with his Latino colleagues, who he sees as trying to squeeze out Black people from the City Council. “It’s illegal,” he said, referring to the Voting Rights Act. He argues that the Latino Caucus map disenfranchises the city’s Black population by diluting their power; he says he’s ready to take the map his caucus supports and that was “developed by two-thirds of the members of the City Council” to voters.
According to Ervin, fewer black faces on City Council = a dilution of black power. He voices no understanding that, if, say, a Latino council member effectively represents the interests of the voters of his/her district, regardless of its racial makeup, then no one’s power is diluted. The only thing diluting blacks’ power in Chicago is blacks moving away.
But, to her enduring credit, Mayor Lori Lightfoot sees further.
Lightfoot told POLITICO in an interview that she opposes gerrymandering that protects incumbents, and she has threatened to veto the first draft of the map supported by the Black Caucus because it protected an incumbent white alderman under federal indictment.
The mayor, a former prosecutor who for years handled redistricting cases in the courts, said, “the most important thing for me is not having districts or wards where there is zero competition.” Lightfoot added: “Nobody should be guaranteed a seat for life.”
“We’re not going to get beyond [being] the most segregated city in the country if we don’t start thinking about engaging with our residents,” she said, “and really, really rethinking the compact between government and the people in a very different way.”
Gerrymandering seats to ensure the election of blacks or Latinos has resulted in the very sort of guaranteed seat Lightfoot rightly opposes. Consider Houston, where I lived for many years. There, U.S. Congressional District 18 has, since 1972, been a “black” seat. The census of 1970 resulted in redrawn districts in 1971. In 1972, the areas of Houston included in District 18 sent their first black Congressperson to Washington, which was the whole point of redistricting. Elected in 1972, Barbara Jordan handed the baton to Mickey Leland in 1979 who handed it to Craig Washington who handed it to Sheila Jackson Lee, who holds it today. Republican candidates in the district tend to garner vote percentages in the low 20s, if they’re lucky. The 18th is a perfect example of Lightfoot’s term, “guaranteed seat.”
That “compact between government and the people” Lightfoot wants to rethink is exactly the one I’m proposing, the one that assumes that we’re not just blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians, but Americans and that anyone can represent anyone. The very identity politics so beloved by progressive Democrats result in the zero-sum power conflicts now playing out in Chicago, setting race against race, ethnicity against ethnicity, and on which Politico so ably reports.