The scandal ripping through municipal politics in Los Angeles is significant enough that President Biden weighed in Tuesday. Through White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden made it clear that he believed three members of the city council who had been recorded having a conversation littered with racist commentary should resign. Three Democrats, mind you.
It would have been hard for him not to. The comments are often grotesque, extending to the Black child of one of the council members’ colleagues.
What’s worth highlighting, though, is the way in which race was almost necessarily at the center of the discussion that day. The council members were meeting with the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to discuss revisions to the city’s council district boundaries. This redistricting, after the 2020 Census conducted by the Census Bureau, is meant to ensure that districts at the federal, state and local levels are evenly populated. But because those decisions often depend on population counts by race, and because race is often a proxy for political voting, redistricting fights are often struggles for power between racial groups.
Though only rarely, we might hope, do those discussions devolve into the sort of toxic racism that was recorded in Los Angeles.
At one point in the lengthy recording, the group discusses the extent to which district boundaries disadvantage Hispanics.
“There’s 57 out of 60 seats that African Americans are in, are Latino seats,” one says during the conversation. It’s not clear how those districts are identified; the city council has only 15 seats. But that some seats are “Latino seats” by virtue of population is a common assumption if not something commonly articulated.
Three districts are mentioned in that part of the conversation: the 8th, 10th and 15th council districts. According to the newly drawn boundaries, each of those districts does have a majority Hispanic population. If we assume, though, that voting happens entirely along racial lines — which is not the case — we can see why two of those districts might nonetheless vote for a Black council member.
Since the country’s Hispanic population tends to be younger than the population overall (the median age of California Hispanics is 29, compared with 36 overall) and because many of the region’s Hispanics are not U.S. citizens, the distribution of the population that can vote is generally quite different.
In every district, the density of Hispanics in the population overall is higher than the density in the voting-eligible population. Often, Whites benefit. Sometimes, as in the 8th and 10th districts, Blacks do.
California, and Los Angeles in particular, has experienced tensions between Black and Hispanic residents for decades. Those tensions ebb and flow; activists have been often been effective in building alliances that recognize shared points of interest. But the redistricting process, an unadorned jockeying for power, creates a moment when those interests are in direct conflict.
Most of the Black and Hispanic elected officials in Los Angeles are Democrats. In other places, the overlap of race and politics takes a more explicitly partisan form.
On Tuesday, ProPublica dug into Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) proposed new congressional boundaries for that state following the 2020 census. It found that DeSantis and his team had employed partisan consultants to develop a map that was remarkably friendly to Republican interests, raising questions about the legitimacy of an effort that was supposed to be free of partisan influence.
One of the shifts noted in the article is how a heavily Black district in northern Florida was broken apart, distributing its Black population across multiple districts — and therefore reducing the concentrated power of Black voters. In northern Florida, the importance of that shift doesn’t depend on our assuming that Black people only vote for Black candidates. Black voters are much more heavily Democratic than White or Hispanic voters. So splitting up Black voting blocs serves to split up Democratic ones.
In the 2018 election, Florida had 18 districts that were at least 40 percent White and three that were at least 40 percent Black. In 2022, it will have 20 districts that are at least 40 percent White and only one that’s as densely Black.
This isn’t only happening in Florida. In Louisiana, for example, a similar effort yielded a map that packed a large chunk of the state’s Black population into one district. A federal judge ordered that the map be redrawn to increase the density of the Black population in at least one other proposed district. The Supreme Court then stepped in to intervene; the original map will stand for the midterms. Alabama’s similar fight was before the Supreme Court last week.
In June, I detailed the effects of the existing Louisiana map relative to voter registration.
Race as proxy for political power. Not a new development in the American South, certainly, but not one confined to that region.
In Los Angeles, the struggle for representation and control took a particularly ugly tone behind closed doors. It has already upended the existing balance of power on the council and threatens to continue to ripple outward for some time.
The stone that triggered that ripple, ironically, was the decadal effort to ensure fairness in representation.