A lesson: Redistricting by race fails to add up

May 24, 2001|By Michael Olesker

CHILDREN in Baltimore County are getting an unintended end-of-school-year civics lesson this week. It is supposed to be a lesson about political redistricting, a subject that is important but dull. Dull, dull, dull. Instead, it is more about race, which is always fascinating but often divisive. Maybe the kids should cut this class and miss the entire lesson.

The reasoning behind political districts is simple enough. Baltimore County is too big for one person - even a person as smart as a county executive - to handle alone. So specific, manageable districts are created in which individual council members can focus their attention when problems arise.

For example, Randallstown has big problems with traffic that do not affect other districts. Have you ever tried to navigate Liberty Road during rush hour? Better, you should try to navigate the minds of Kevin Kamenetz and Dolores G. Kelley.

Are you following this so far, children?

Kamenetz is the councilman who represents Randallstown and Pikesville. Some people in government say he worked hard to redraw the new county district lines. Mainly, they say, he worked hard to secure his base among Jewish voters, while moving some precincts with growing black populations into a new voter district.

Kelley is the state senator from Randallstown. She is not so sure she likes the new district lines. She is African-American. The proposed new county lines would create a district - Randallstown, Woodlawn and part of Owings Mills - that would be about 59 percent African-American.

Thus, it was initially said, the county might likely elect a black council person. Then, somebody doing a slightly different recount of the new district had a second thought, best expressed with the simple phrase: Oops.

It seems that, while about 59 percent of the proposed new district's entire population would be black, only about half of the eligible voters would be. Thus, black voters eager to elect the first African-American council member in the entire history of Baltimore County - yes, you heard that correctly, children - would not be gaining quite the electoral benefits they might have imagined.

Children, can we raise a few questions here?

What in the world does skin color have to do with Liberty Road traffic congestion? Or, for that matter, with potholes in Dundalk, or trash collection in Timonium, or zoning disputes in Towson?

Answer: nothing at all.

Except, of course, that race touches everything in the American spirit - since we continue instinctively, and insufferably, to divide ourselves that way.

In Baltimore County, as in the rest of America, there is a history that feeds into this. Not only has the county never elected a single African-American council member (or county executive), but for a long time, there weren't many black voters.

There was a county executive, named Dale Anderson, whose popularity was based - not entirely, but not insubstantially - on the signals he sent out, during the first great wave of white suburban migration, that blacks were not welcome in Baltimore County. People don't forget that kind of history.

But Dale Anderson left office about a quarter-century ago.

To schoolchildren now getting their little civics lesson, that sounds like another world ago. Psychologically, it was not. For we still have an assumption, captured in the proposed new county districts, that black people will vote for black candidates strictly because of race, and Jews will vote for Jews strictly by religion, and other whites will vote for whites against blacks strictly by race.

Wonderful.

So today, we have the American Civil Liberties Union jumping into the debate, with a proposal for a county district with a higher black voting-age population.

Children, what do we think about this? Is it good - because it might give Baltimore County, at long last, a council member who does not have white skin?

Is it not so good - because, once again, it presumes we are still choosing up sides by skin color, and still presuming that somebody who doesn't look like us, or follow our religious beliefs, can't truly represent us, and doesn't really have our best interests at heart?

And what does any of that have to do with traffic congestion in Randallstown?

Or potholes in Dundalk?

Or trash collection in Timonium?

The answer is up to you, children. Because, even though your elders have been around much longer than you, and have pondered this question for a long time, one thing is clear: They still do not have a clue.

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