Annapolis tackles boundary changes

Redistricting pits conflicting issues of race, community

April 30, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

The group pores over printouts of demographic tables and peers at a large projection of Annapolis' color-coded voting districts this recent night in the conference room of a community center that once was an all-black school.

At the moment, the 11 residents are looking for "white folks" -- a whole neighborhood of Caucasians to move from a too-white ward to a too-black one, in the hope of creating a third mostly black voting district.

The process, a tedious, time-consuming effort in the city's Stanton Center, is the state capital's attempt to redistrict in time for its fall election, but just weeks after receiving the results of the 2000 census.

Annapolis is the first jurisdiction in Maryland to begin the politically sensitive and daunting task, and the issues at these sessions -- balancing racial demographics and population while not dividing communities -- will soon be faced around the state.

Race is the predominant and most sensitive concern, brought to the forefront by a Supreme Court decision this month that upheld the right of governments to consider race in creating voting districts, as long as it is not the only factor.

Already in Annapolis, where there is a history of racial tension, including a 1985 redistricting lawsuit, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has threatened to sue if three majority-black districts are not created.

It is something that some African-Americans in the city -- who make up 31 percent of the population -- have been demanding for decades. Still, it appears the city might not achieve that goal.

"Given the historic context of race relations in Annapolis, [race] is something we need to be sensitive to," redistricting committee chairman and former City Attorney Frederick C. Sussman said recently. "The question is where do you draw the line?"

Where to draw the lines speaks to the heart of American democracy: equal representation in government. The lines will determine the makeup of the government and, subsequently, the laws that are passed. The lines will decide the relative power of communities and groups.

As the committee relocates neighborhood blocks from one of the city's eight wards to another, the issue of race is paramount, even if it is, as one committee member described it, the "goal we are not allowed to talk about."

The choice between creating a third mostly black ward and uniting a long-divided, mostly white community illustrates the complexity of the redistricting process.

Two weeks ago, when the NAACP threatened to sue the city, it seemed the committee was on track to create a third mostly black voting district. It had established two solidly minority wards, 3 and 6, which were proposed to have African-American populations of about 78 percent and 58 percent and total minority populations of about 85 percent and 65 percent, respectively.

Then the focus shifted to Ward 4, the area with the next-best chance of becoming minority dominated.

Committee member Edwin H. Staples, a white lawyer, said he would be "blunt" about it.

"Find us some white folks, will you?" he asked a city staff person operating a laptop computer. "We need to take some white folks out of Ward 4."

By the end of the meeting, they had found their white folks. But they would have come at the cost of keeping the large, mostly white, middle-class Germantown-Homewood neighborhood split among three wards.

"That was a price the white community was not willing to pay," said Donnell L. Harris, an African-American author who represents the city's Democratic Central Committee in the process.

At the next meeting, the redistricting committee decided to consolidate Germantown-Homewood into two wards, which meant moving a black community that would have increased Ward 4's minority base back into the already heavily black Ward 3.

"When you talk about fairness, you have to be fair to everyone, not just blacks," Staples told the committee Thursday. Sussman said that uniting that community into one or two wards was a goal of the committee from the beginning.

Under the proposal expected to be presented to the city council tomorrow, Ward 4 would be about 45 percent black and 49 percent white. The total minority population would be just under 51 percent, and would include people who checked Asian, two or more races and "other."

Hispanics, who account for 6.4 percent of the city's population of 35,840, are counted as an ethnic group, not a race, in census data.

When the committee tentatively voted on its proposal Thursday, Harris said he would go along with the group but was not pleased by the decision not to further increase Ward 4's black population.

"I am not convinced -- I will not walk away in agreement," he told the committee.

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