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Analysis

Don’t Gerrymander Away the New Multiracial America

Changing the trajectory of the coming redistricting train wreck for communities of color will require bold action by Congress.

Last Updated: August 27, 2021
Published: August 27, 2021
Multiracial population
Stephanie Keith / Getty

This article was origin­ally published in the Boston Globe.

The results of the 2020 Census are in, and the big takeaway is clear: The multiracial future of Amer­ica is no longer “the future.” It’s the here and now. Big cities like Boston and New York became more diverse over the last decade, but some of the most profound changes took place in the nation’s suburbs. Suburban towns like Duluth, Geor­gia, and Sugar Land, Texas, which were once known as bastions of white flight, have now become among the most diverse places in the coun­try. Indeed, half of all people of color in metro areas now reside in suburbs rather than in urban city cores. The polit­ics of suburban Amer­ica have already star­ted to feel the impact.

But the grow­ing diversity of Amer­ica has also produced back­lash, and a threat to the emer­ging multiracial Amer­ica that is clear and present without swift congres­sional action.

record number of restrict­ive voting meas­ures are moving through state legis­latures. And in the suburbs, where multiracial coali­tions have increas­ingly star­ted to compete for and win power, partisan map draw­ers have communit­ies of color squarely in their crosshairs for the redraw­ing of elect­oral district bound­ar­ies that will take place this year and next for everything from city coun­cil to Congress.

For the first time in history, all of the coun­try’s popu­la­tion gains came from people of color, with 70 percent of growth fueled by Latino and Asian communit­ies. The census also showed a record number of Amer­ic­ans now identi­fy­ing as more than one race, while the number of white Amer­ic­ans fell by just over two and a half percent between 2010 and 2020. It’s the first time in Amer­ican history that there were fewer white people from one census to the next (though some of this may be due to changes in census meth­od­o­logy).

But as remark­able as the census numbers are at 30,000 feet, they are even more aston­ish­ing at the local level. Take Gwin­nett County in suburban Atlanta. Begin­ning in the 1970s, the county boomed as white people left Atlanta in droves after the end of segreg­a­tion. For decades after, Gwin­nett County was the polit­ical base for former House speaker Newt Gingrich and home to a brand of deeply limited-govern­ment, suburban conser­vativ­ism that eschewed both taxes and mass transit connec­tions to Atlanta. Half way across the coun­try, Tom DeLay built a similar polit­ical base in Fort Bend County, Texas, outside of Hous­ton, another white-flight suburban county.

Flash forward to 2021. Gwin­nett County, which was nearly 90 percent white in 1990, is now only 35 percent white. Fort Bend County is only 32 percent white. In both counties, no ethnic group is a major­ity or even a signi­fic­ant plur­al­ity.

These demo­graphic changes have already star­ted to trans­late into shifts in polit­ical power. In 2018, Fort Bend County elec­ted an Indian Amer­ican to be its county exec­ut­ive, the first non-white person to hold the post. And in 2020, Gwin­nett County elec­ted a Black sher­iff and the first Chinese-Amer­ican woman to serve in the Geor­gia state senate. Across the coun­try, from the suburbs of New York City to the suburbs of Dallas, there are similar stor­ies of diverse, multiracial suburban coali­tions winning power or coming close to it.

But the redraw­ing of elect­oral districts after the 2020 Census will give polit­ical oper­at­ives a chance to knee­cap the new multiracial Amer­ica just as it is being born. If success­ful, they will undo many of elect­oral gains of recent years and make it harder for new oppor­tun­it­ies to emerge.

Nowhere is the redis­trict­ing threat greater than in the suburbs of the South, where single-party control of the map draw­ing process will combine with weakened legal protec­tions to set the stage for an unpre­ced­en­ted shel­lack­ing of communit­ies of color. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision green­light­ing partisan gerry­man­der­ing, Repub­lican map-draw­ers will have free rein to break apart districts where Black, Latino, and Asian voters have enjoyed increas­ing elect­oral success, citing naked partisan motives as their excuse.

Chan­ging the traject­ory of the coming redis­trict­ing train wreck for communit­ies of color will require bold action by Congress. By passing crit­ical reforms like the For the People Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, Congress could ban partisan gerry­man­der­ing and restore and strengthen key protec­tions for communit­ies of color in redis­trict­ing. The result would be trans­form­at­ive. But with census numbers in hand, map draw­ing is start­ing. The longer Congress waits, the messier the process of imple­ment­ing reforms will be and the greater the like­li­hood that discrim­in­at­ory maps get left in place for the 2022 midterms.

The census numbers make clear that our coun­try’s future is multiracial and deeply coali­tional. Without gerry­man­der­ing, polit­ical parties would be forced by neces­sity to figure out ways to build diverse, multiracial coali­tions or face being condemned to being regional or sectional curi­os­it­ies. But gerry­man­der­ing gives states a way to kick the can down the road. For the sake of all of us, Congress must take the power to cheat voters off the table.