Redrawing the lines

March 21, 1991

It is perhaps too simple to say the criteria for redistricting in the city should be simple fairness. Any plan to move boundary lines is going to be perceived as unfair by some group or other. Nonetheless, the city's population is 59.2 percent black; yet only three of its councilmanic districts have a black majority, and only seven of the council's 19 members are black. That is clearly unfair.

But the means by which fairness is achieved, rather than the mere fact of achieving of it, need to be considered as well. Unfortunately, the redistricting process has degenerated into bitter and divisive name-calling that has masked the greater goal.

It is difficult to point the finger of blame, but some things are obvious: First, it might have been possible to increase black representation on the council -- even within the confines of current district lines -- were it not for coalition politics in the 5th and 2nd districts, which had the effect of giving over one seat in each district to a white representative.

Moreover, though the Schmoke administration feels its plan is as fair and legally sound as the census numbers and housing patterns can allow, Mayor Schmoke could have made minor changes in his proposal that would have made the 6th and the 3rd districts predominantly black -- leaving at least four districts with more than 60 percent black population. Had he done so, the plan would have sailed through the council. Because he didn't, however, the mayor alienated the African-American coalition which, once it garnered the votes, was in no mood to compromise.

The new council plan, introduced by 2nd District Councilman Carl Stokes, will create five districts with black majorities. Clearly Stokes' plan addresses the critical issue of racial imbalance on the council. But the new configuration comes at the cost of chopping up neighborhoods in the 3rd and 6th districts, which, with justification, complain that they were neither consulted nor have any recourse. Stokes' plan may be fair in that it achieves the desired end, but to the extent that the same outcome could have been accomplished without such radical and divisive changes, it is patently unfair.

The irony of all this is that Stokes' plan, like Schmoke's plan, will end up in court -- and thus, as racial tensions escalate, a solution remains tenuous. Had the mayor and council been able to compromise to achieve this same goal, and well they could have, the city would have been better served.

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