Growing Minority Blocs Struggle for Political Gains

Black, Hispanic, and Asian community leaders demanding empowerment by redistricting

THE face of American government will change significantly in the 1990s - becoming more black, brown, and Asian - but not as significantly as many activists would like.That seems to be the early conclusion of what the all-important decennial process of redistricting will mean for minority groups across the country. As lawmakers from Maine to California move through the sensitive task of redrawing political boundaries, early snapshots show that dozens of new black and Hispanic leaders could be elected to offices at the state and federal level as a result of the way districts are being refashioned. But in many states, the gains have been less than minority leaders believe they should be, and more quarreling and maneuvering lies ahead. Already, Hispanic groups in Texas have challenged state redistricting plans in court and similar suits may be filed by groups in New Mexico and California. The United States Department of Justice has returned the maps of several Southern states for not creating more districts favorable to blacks. While the redrawing is ongoing, minority groups offer these assessments of the early dynamics: * Latinos. Activists had hoped to double the number of Hispanics in Congress, from 10 to 20. The way things are going so far, however, there will be only six or seven new districts created where Latinos will make up a majority of the population, and thus possibly be elected to office. In California, Hispanics were pushing for three new Latino-majority districts. The Legislature created one, but, because of a gubernatorial veto, the courts will likely redraw the maps. Texas created two new Hispanic districts; New Mexico none. "What we're seeing is not at all comparable to Latino demographic growth over the last decade," says Arturo Vargas of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund; the Hispanic population grew 9 million in the 1980s, to 23 million. Similar disputes loom over boundaries for state legislative offices. The Texas Legislature created seven fewer Hispanic-majority districts than Latino activists had wanted, which is one reason they are fighting the plan in court. Hispanics want at least one more seat in California. * Blacks. Leaders project that eight to 12 black congressional districts will be created. Most will be in the South, but the leaders hope to see favorable districts drawn in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. Nationwide, blacks hold less than 2 percent of all elected positions while representing 12 percent of the population. In statehouses, estimates of the number of seats blacks hope to gain run from 50 to 125. Reactions have been mixed so far. In Louisiana, 14 new black-majority districts have been created for state legislature seats, which some consider good. Georgia carved out 12 new districts - six less than black leaders had wanted. North Carolina fell short of some blacks' expectations as well. One close watcher of redistricting in the South estimates that blacks are getting about "50 percent of what they could." * Asians. Although Asians were the fastest-growing ethnic group in the 1980s, no one expects a political takeover by Korean- or Chinese-Americans. Asian groups are trying to keep their communities intact so they can exert more influence over issues and, as their numbers grow, elect people later on. California is under the microscope. Although Asians comprise 9 percent of the population, none serve in the state Senate or Assembly. Advocacy groups seek more districts where Asian-Americans make up about 25 percent of the population. Under federal law, legislatures do not have to draw lines to ensure the election of minorities. But the federal Voting Rights Act and recent court interpretations of it do require that where minority populations exist in significant numbers, they be grouped to maximize their influence. Minorities often run into an immovable object, incumbency. Lawmakers are reluctant to draw lines that make it tougher for them to be reelected. But since Democrats control so many state houses, minorities, usually Democratic allies, have teamed up with Republicans in many states. "Incumbency protection is everywhere," says Robert Brisch-etto, executive director of the Southwest Voter Research Institute. "You are going to have a lot of court battles." Even so, he and others say Latinos and blacks will make significant gains, though it may take years. "I'm confident there will be a substantial leap forward," says Clifford Collins, director of voter education for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Drawing minority-dominated districts, however, does not ensure that a black or Latino will be elected. In California, 52 percent of Hispanics of voting age are ineligible to cast a ballot. "Everybody assumes that people vote according to the color of skin," says Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services, a political consulting firm. "Politics is more complex than that."

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