By Sean Yoes
AFRO Baltimore Editor
Historically, redistricting has been wielded to diminish Black political power. University of Maryland Law Professor Larry S. Gibson says it may soon be used to increase Black political power in Baltimore County. The County’s lone Council representative isn’t so sure.
Implausibly gerrymandered political maps of Congressional and state legislative districts have often been a bane upon the struggle for Black political power in America for decades.
However, redistricting has been an American phenomenon in politics since 1790, when the country conducted its first national census as mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. After every decennial census since 1790, state legislators gathered to redraw legislative districts.
But since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislators (particularly in the South) have systematically engaged in the practice of crafting racially gerrymandered districts with great guile to suppress the burgeoning power of the Black vote.
“It didn’t take southern politicians very long to find a loophole. They realized that while it had become nearly impossible to limit Black voters’ access to the ballot box, it was still possible to limit the power of the votes they cast,” wrote Abigail Thernstrom in National Affairs, in 2010.
“And in the years immediately following the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, a growing number of southern jurisdictions replaced geographic districts with at-large voting, eliminated elected positions in favor of appointed ones, and reconfigured state legislative districts — all in an effort to reduce the effect of the newly surging Black vote and maintain White supremacy.”
Yet, as the nation engages in the latest decennial census those who seek to augment Black political power in Baltimore County are hopeful. The county, which is about one-third Black, with dominant Black populations in communities like Randallstown, Owings Mills, Woodlawn and others, has only one Black representative on the Baltimore County Council.
Julian E. Jones Jr. represents the Fourth District, which encompasses many of those large Black enclaves. According to University of Maryland Law Professor Larry S. Gibson, the county very well may be on course to add at least one more Black member to the County Council following the conclusion of the 2020 census.
“Two redistricting devices have traditionally been used to diminish the impact of Black voters,” Gibson told the AFRO.
“‘Backing’ involves drawing district lines that group all or almost all of the Black neighborhoods into a single district. That way, Black voters have no, or limited influence in the remaining districts. “Cracking” involves disbursing the Black voters among so many districts that they have limited influence in any particular district,” Gibson added.
Yet, according to Gibson, a legendary political strategist who engineered the campaigns of Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s first Black elected mayor, as well as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman president of an African nation (Liberia), a new political reality for Blacks in Baltimore County may be imminent.
“Consider the upcoming redistricting of the seven-member Baltimore County Council. Even though African Americans comprise about a third of the County’s active voters, under the current district lines, they can exert effective control over only one Council seat,” Gibson said.
“Next year’s post-census redistricting will afford an opportunity to correct this imbalance. An equitable redistricting plan would give Black voters control of at least two, and perhaps three, Baltimore County Council seats.
Jones, the lone Black member of the County Council may not be as optimistic as Gibson that those additions of seats held by Black members of the Council is going to happen this time around.
“Thinking about the political process I guess, I hope it happens. I’m not sure,” Jones told the AFRO. Right now if you look at the majority of people of color in Baltimore County you have a large population right here in my district. So, if that number swells and they are all still sitting here in this district, then you haven’t really done much. At some point we have to get to a critical mass where they are populating another district where they have sufficient numbers…or you get a good candidate…numbers are important, but numbers aren’t the only factor,” Jones added.
“I don’t suspect…that any of my council members or anybody else is going to be looking at changing the districts to maximize African Americans getting elected to this Council. I don’t see that happening. Not that we won’t try. But, looking at the politics, it’s not just about the numbers.”