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Redistricting – What is really going on?

We have arrived at that time where, once every 10 years, the Census results in the creation of new boundaries from which we select our elected representatives.


We have arrived at that time where, once every 10 years, the Census results in the creation of new boundaries from which we select our elected representatives. Because of changing demographics, this process, called redistricting, takes a finite number of elected positions and redraws the area that will be represented by each representative.

The 435 United States Congressional districts are re-drawn to reflect the increase in the nation’s population and to, as much as possible, equally distribute citizens among those districts.  In Tennessee, the 33 State Senate seats and the 99 State House seats are re-drawn to reflect the equal allocation of citizens to each seat. In the City of Memphis and in Shelby County, the 13-member City Council and the 13-member County Commission each have their districts re-drawn to reflect the changes in the demographics over the last 10 years in this community.

The questions that we, African Americans, must ask are: Who draws the lines? How are these lines being drawn?

With the exception of the U.S. Congress, almost all re-districting is done by the legislative body that is to be re-districted. (In most cases, Congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures; however, in some states “so-called bi-partisan independent commissions” draw the districts.) Put another way, the legislators draw their own districts. And since we have elected these representatives, technically then, these new districts reflect the will of the people. But do they really?

Members of legislative bodies, whether federal, state, county or city, are elected based upon their appeal to the voters of their districts and the presumed commonality of interest they share. This commonality is derived from characteristics, including political philosophy (evidenced by political party), quality of life class and race. People elect representatives who they believe are like them, and the elected representatives usually see themselves as being like the people who elected them. Thus, it is only natural for those entrusted with re-drawing districts to try to draw districts that produce representatives who are like them and the citizens they represent.

This means that Democrats draw districts to get more Democrats; Republicans draw to get more Republicans; Liberals draw to get more Liberals; and Conservatives draw to get more Conservatives. In our Tennessee, Shelby County and Memphis environment, it also means that blacks try to get more blacks and whites try to get more whites. This occurs not only as it relates to increasing the number of representatives who are like them, but it also applies to ensuring that the representative’s own district becomes more demographically like him/her. Since majority rules, whatever group is in the majority is going to try to entrench itself and expand. Unfortunately, what is done is not always “fair”.

Years of mistreatment of and unfairness to blacks in the South resulted in the disenfranchisement of blacks when it came to voting participation and to representation on political bodies. Prior to 1964 and the election of the late A. W. Willis as state representative from Memphis, there were no African Americans in the Tennessee State Legislature and there had not been any since Reconstruction. As recently as 2011, there were only 17 black members of the Tennessee legislature, less than the 22 that the statewide 17 percent black population would dictate. Additionally, partisan politics has resulted in at least one of the incumbents being redrawn into a district where they will face another black incumbent. This would appear to be an obvious dilution of black representation.

Likewise, in 1967, when the new Mayor-Council form of government was implemented for the City, there were three original black City Councilmen (out of 13), even though Memphis was 35-to-40 percent black. It stayed that way until 1991 when two African Americans were elected At-Large (from the whole City) at the same time that Dr. Willie W. Herenton became the first African American elected mayor. The City, although majority black, had only 6 black members on the 13-member City Council because of the dilution caused by At-Large Voting.

After a lawsuit, which challenged the “fairness” of At-Large voting, the City Council (of which I was a member at that time in 1993) voted, over the objections of many in the black community (including me), to replace that system with a multi-member, “Super District” arrangement instead of a single-member plan. That plan divided the City into half, with half becoming a black multi-member district and the other half becoming a similar white district, each having three Councilpersons.

The result? The White district was large enough to insulate it from demographic changes that should have increased the number of blacks on the Council and this “Super District” plan virtually institutionalized the number of white Council members at 6. Memphis is today about 67 percent black and might have had as many as 9 black members instead of 7 if it had single member districts.

As the Shelby County Commission presently debates various redistricting plans, the question now is this: How many seats should African Americans have on the 13-member body and how should all districts be drawn?

In 1994, I was part of the last expansion of the County Commission from 11 to 13 members. The late Dr. James Ford and I were added to two multi-member districts to reflect the increase in the black population of the County. Now the County Commission is debating whether to keep multi-member (two- or three-member) districts or to adopt a new single-member district plan.  Generally, government that is closest to the people is preferable and smaller districts have this result. The County Commission’s multi-member districts would include 200,000-plus residents while single-member districts would have 70,000. Simple math says single-member districts are best.

Just because you have a single-member district does not mean that the district will be drawn “fairly”. Indeed, incumbents tend to draw districts that protect them, political parties draw districts that protect and increase their numbers, and unfortunately, racial groups draw districts that maintain or increase their numbers (especially here in Memphis and Shelby County where racial block voting is so prevalent).

Another consideration is that re-districting takes place once every 10 years, after the Census. To ensure that our legislative bodies accurately reflect our community’s needs, we need to maximize black representation. Similarly, the Census always has a significant undercount of blacks and Hispanics. Instead of Memphis being 64 percent black in 2010, it was really 67 percent or more black. When they say that Shelby County was 52.1 percent black and 40 percent white in 2012, I know that Shelby County’s actual black population was closer to 55 percent.

As we draw lines for districts at the state, county and city levels, our population in this community has gotten “blacker” between the 2010 Census and today (2012). Thus, if blacks made up 55 percent of the County in 2010, that would equate to 7-plus of the 13 County Commission seats. And if whites made up 40 percent of the County, then that equates to 5 County Commission seats. The 13th and final seat would be a “toss-up” seat. It should be slightly “majority black” since, based on population, the black population would be entitled to a “portion of a seat” given that seats can’t be split and the number of blacks has increased since the 2010 Census.

So there you have it. The present re-districting debate at the County Commission has all the above elements. This is why it is taking so long and has been so contentious. A final vote on a re-districting plan will probably take place in the next two weeks. One thing is for sure: re-districting will not be of the people, by the people and for the people until we, the people, get involved.

(Guest columnist Shep Wilbun is a former Shelby County Commissioner and Memphis City Councilman.)


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