Race and Redistricting: A look at the new Congressional map

Last Friday, when he chose the Republican map, Redistricting Commission tiebreaker John Farmer suggested that the new map “honors more completely New Jersey’s diversity.” To say this about a map which targets the only Jewish member of the delegation for elimination (though Congressman Rothman obviously isn’t cooperating with Dean Farmer’s plan) and provides no new meaningful opportunities for minorities elsewhere takes, well, chutzpah. Follow me below the fold as I explain why this map denigrates, rather than honors, New Jersey’s diversity.

Everyone, including members of the Commission, likes to talk about diversity during redistricting. I don’t doubt that all of the commissioners genuinely believe that minorities should have a fair and equal opportunity to participate in the political process. Much of this talk is motivated not by a desire for racial inclusiveness, but by political considerations. Commissioners from both parties know that if you can convince the tiebreaker that your map is racially inclusive, he’ll feel better about himself when he adopts it.

There are two ways to approach race in districting. The first way ascribes an almost religious significance to irrelevant numbers (usually 50% of voting age population). For those who seek to advance interest of minority communities, this is the dumb way. For those who have ulterior motives, this approach can be manipulated to advance their other aims, often at the expense of the same minority communities they purport to care about. The second way involves functional approach that looks at how elections really work and looks at all relevant facts and circumstances to assess minority political opportunity for each political district and for the map as a whole.

The Commission took the first approach. The 10th and 8th are respectively 50.2% black and 50.2% Hispanic (give or take 0.1%). To accomplish this feat, the map splits Newark, Jersey City, and Bayonne between these two districts. The 10th also splits Montclair, West Orange, and Bloomfield with the 11th and Union Township with the 7th. The rest of the map fetishizes political boundaries at the expense of everything else, splitting towns only as strictly necessary to achieve strict population equality. Thus the town-splitting in the 10th and 8th district can be explained only as an effort to ensure that the districts had a particular racial composition.

I’ve said this twice already here at Blue Jersey, but smart people, including smart lawyers, still seem to forget it. So I’ll say it again: Just because a 50% black or Hispanic district is possible doesn’t mean one is necessary or sufficient to satisfy a state’s obligations under the VRA. I’ll also add this: the fact that a district is just over 50% black or Hispanic, as opposed to just under 50% black or Hispanic, is irrelevant to evaluating whether a map affords fair and equal opportunity to racial minorities or reflects the diversity of the state in any relevant way.

The 50% number is relevant for one and only one purpose. If a 50% black or Hispanic district is possible, then a map which deprives the group in question of the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice violates § 2 of the Voting Rights Act; if such a district is not possible, then no § 2 vote dilution claim can ever prevail. Even if such a district is possible, however, it need not be drawn as long as a sub-50% district affords voters of the applicable minority opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

To be sure, demographic statistics are a relevant, and indeed, important factor in evaluating the opportunity a map or a particular district affords to racial or ethnic minorities. But it is only one factor, and it should not be measured simply by a mechanical 51%-thumbs-up-49%-thumbs-down evaluation. How a district performs electorally is just as important, if not more important, than its demographic profile. A 45% Latino district in which Latinos can consistently elect the candidate of their choice (e.g., NJ-13 in the 1990s) is better than a 55% Latino district in which Latino vote is swamped by an organized non-Latino minority.

In touting the Republican map’s respect for diversity, Dean Farmer suggested that there are two districts in which “minorities in coalition can constitute a majority.”  I suspect one of these is the new 9th, which is 45.4% white, 9.7% black, 31.2% Latino, and 12.2% Asian. The new 9th offers scantly more opportunity than the old 8th, which as of the 2010 census was 48.8% white, 12.5% black, and 30.5% Latino. Moreover, the racial and ethnic groups in the new district are less cohesive than those in the old one. Both old NJ-08 and new NJ-09 contain black and Latino communities in Passaic, Clifton, and Paterson. But the new map removes Hispanics in Bloomfield, Nutley, and Belleville, and African Americans in West and South Orange and replaces them with East Asians (among others) in Eastern Bergen County.

I can’t tell what the other minority opportunity district is supposed to be, but I’m pretty sure it’s either NJ-06 or NJ-12. NJ-06, Frank Pallone’s district, is 55.2% white, 9.0% black, 17.6% Latino, and 16.4% Asian. It unites Asian-Americans in Northern Middlesex County who were split between NJ-06 and NJ-07 in the previous map. The district’s Latino population is concentrated in New Brunswick (predominantly Mexicans) and Perth Amboy (mostly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans), with smaller but significant communities in Long Branch and Carteret. But the new NJ-06 has lost Latinos and African Americans in Plainfield and the Somerset portion of Franklin Township.

I think it’s more likely Farmer was referring to NJ-12. The minority population in NJ-12 increases substantially, thanks to gerrymandered hook that stretches into Union County to grab the city of Plainfield. Two-thirds of the old district was white; the new version is 53.9% white, 16.6% black, 14.3% Latino, and 13.6% Asian. Most of the district’s African Americans live in three parts of the district: Trenton and its inner suburbs, the Somerset neighborhood in Franklin County, and Plainfield. Trenton and Plainfield also contain large Latino populations. The district’s Asian-American population is concentrated along the Route 1 corridor from West Windsor to North Brunswick.

Neither the new NJ-09 nor the new NJ-12 significantly increases minority electoral opportunity. While it’s possible that minority groups voting “in coalition” could theoretically be able to control primaries and general elections, there’s no reason to believe that the culturally, economically, and geographically diverse array of groups are more likely to form a coalition with each other than they are with a white non-Latino majority.

In the upcoming Democratic primary in NJ-09, for example, voters will split not along racial but county lines. If Congressman Rothman wins, he will likely do so despite the opposition of most of the districts black and Latino voters, who are concentrated in Passaic County; if Congressman Pascrell wins, he will do so with little support from the district’s Asians, most of whom live in Eastern Bergen County. Pitting minority groups against one another is a curious way to “honor” the states diversity or enhancing minority electoral opportunity.

It is no more likely that minority groups in NJ-12 will be at all politically cohesive. Indian Americans in Plainsboro, African Americans in Plainfield, and Puerto Ricans and Guatemalans in South Trenton live very different lives and have starkly divergent interests. On top of that, white voters in NJ-12 are heavily Democratic, and might even be the dominant bloc in a racially divided primary (though such an event is not terribly likely).

Moreover, the boundaries of both districts split minority populations. Latinos in South Trenton and adjacent neighborhoods in Hamilton were in one district in the old map, but are now split over two. African Americans and Latinos in Somerset are now cut off from their neighbors in New Brunswick. And the new map continues to divide Latinos in North Plainfield from those in Plainfield. African Americans in Teaneck and Englewood, once entirely within NJ-09, are now split between NJ-09 and NJ-05.

This is not to say that coalition districts cannot be an effective tool for empowering minority groups politically. Often, the interests of different minority groups will overlap to a significant extent, and in these cases, an effective coalition will not just be mathematically possible but will often materialize. Take, for example, the 29th legislative district in Essex County, which is 35.4% black and 41.2% Hispanic and also boasts a large Portuguese-American population. This November, the 29th elected a Teresa Ruiz (Latina) to State Senate and Grace Spencer (African-American) and Albert Coutinho (Portuguese-American) to the State Assembly.

All of this discussion about cohesiveness overlooks what’s really going on here: bleaching. Bleaching involves packing minority voters into a few, heavily Democratic districts, so as to reduce their presence in Republican-leaning districts just enough so that their votes cannot influence the outcome of elections there. Bleaching essentially uses non-white race as a proxy for Democratic electoral performance. Democratic “vote sinks” are repackaged and sold to the tiebreaking member as “coalition” or “opportunity” districts. By cloaking their partisan motives into a Trojan horse of faux racial inclusiveness, Commission Republicans were thus able to accomplish their partisan goal.

To be clear: This map doesn’t enhance minority influence; it diminishes it. It doesn’t respect New Jersey’s diversity; it denigrates it. Rothman’s district was only 52.9% non-Hispanic white—less than the new NJ-12 and the new NJ-06. Pascrell’s district was even more heavily non-white. Rothman, the only Jewish member of the delegation, and Pascrell were both supported by a broad coalition of racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse citizens in their districts, which have been split between Republican districts, where their votes will be neutralized by conservative white voters from Morris, Sussex, and Warren counties, where minority votes will be mostly wasted in general elections.  

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