By Ashley Shelton
Originally published in Truthout.org
The Louisiana Senate recently continued the state’s long history of racial oppression by voting down Sen. Cleo Fields’s congressional redistricting map. What’s more, the Louisiana House voted down Rep. Randal Gaines’s congressional redistricting map. Gaines is a veteran and civil rights attorney who represents one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Ida (river parishes), and Fields is an attorney and former congressman. Gaines’s and Fields’s proposals included two majority-minority districts (electoral districts where the majority of the constituents are people of color) giving them an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice — something Black voters in the state advocated for. Since the Black population has grown in Louisiana, an additional seat representing this shift is warranted, just and fair.
But in Louisiana, as in other parts of the country, map drawers are refusing to create new electoral opportunities for communities of color. What’s more, they are actively dismantling Black voting power by carving up Black communities in some states or packing Black communities into fewer districts in other states. These manipulative tactics make it harder for Black voters to elect candidates of choice, regardless of turnout or Black population growth.
We’ve seen this play out time and again in Louisiana, where Black voters have not always been treated equitably. My organization, the Power Coalition for Equity & Justice, understood this history and participated in a statewide roadshow allowing legislators and voters to directly engage around redistricting. Throughout the roadshow, which ran from October 20, 2021, through January 20, 2022, voters shared extensive testimony on the importance of representation.
Across the state, countless voters expressed the need for legislators to add an additional majority-minority district given that 33 percent of the state’s population is Black. Louisiana has six congressional districts; one-third of six is two. Rather than surrendering to the will of the people or the logic of population growth, legislators continue machinations that will silence voters.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt suggested she was actually protecting Black voters by not creating a second majority-minority district because she didn’t think a 51 or 52 percent majority-Black district would turn out to vote, meaning they wouldn’t be able to elect a candidate of choice. But many Black voters would take 51 or 52 percent any day over not having a committed and representative voice. No legislator should be able to unilaterally decide what voters need; voters should have more influence.
In the absence of a process that levels the playing field by allowing voters to select who represents them, legislators have outsized influence. For instance, our current congressional House delegation sits on several powerful committees. As the second-poorest state in the country, Louisianians are not benefiting or growing from this representation. In fact, our delegation recently voted against the president’s infrastructure bill, with the exception of Congressman Troy Carter, who currently holds the only majority-Black seat. Their resistance could have blocked a wonderful opportunity to invest in crumbling infrastructure. This is a risk we cannot continue to take.
It is clear that any maps with an additional district will never make it out of committee. State leaders will certainly try to amend on the floor, much like they did on the Senate side, when State Senator Fields made a powerful and compelling plea for his colleagues to do the right thing. People of color represent more than 40 percent of the population, and with the current maps being considered, only receive less than 25 percent of the representation.
The next step is for a map with only one majority-minority district to go before Gov. John Bel Edwards, who can and should veto the map. Edwards should unite with the people of color in his state, particularly since Black voters helped propel him into office. For his part, Governor Edwards said he would veto unfair maps.
He would be in good company. Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas vetoed the racially discriminatory maps put forth by legislatures in their states. Their vetoes were overturned, but their willingness to support the people of their state will be reflected in the history books. Moreover, several residents from three Kansas counties sued to block the state’s newly passed congressional maps, which conservatives in the state passed in early February.
Louisiana has the second-largest Black population in the country, second only to Mississippi. If the governors of Kansas and Kentucky, who have much smaller Black populations, can stand for equity and fairness, Governor Edwards can certainly do the same.
There can be no protection without representation.
Much of what has happened during our redistricting process seems to be heading toward litigation. I hope Louisiana’s leaders remember that we experienced a 4.8 percent drop in the white population, and demographic trends show that it will continue to decrease. My question is: When our population shifts to a white minority, will legislators think it is fair, given the decisions they have made to continue to racially gerrymander and silence the voices of voters of color? I hope Louisiana’s leaders consider that people of color represent more than 40 percent of the population, and with the current maps being considered, only receive less than 25 percent of the representation. In what scenario would anyone take less than they deserve?
The truth is that immigration is driving population shifts in the United States. And most of the people immigrating to this country are people of color, including Black immigrants. Legislators cannot hold communities of color hostage by continually drawing district lines that ignore population growth.
As we think about redistricting, we should ground it in the broader fight for freedom. As Davante Lewis, director of public affairs and outreach for the Louisiana Budget Project, noted in his testimony before the House Governmental Affairs Committee, Black people have endured decades of trauma. Legislators can help ensure progress by drawing fair maps and allowing voters of color to elect candidates of their choice. To gaslight voters by downplaying their population growth is a continuation of their traumatic history.
All people deserve elected officials who will advocate for them. Legislators should not be able to cherry-pick their voters. But unless and until we have an equitable process, legislators will continue to thwart the will of the people, especially when the people are Black, people of color, or persons living in poverty.
Ashley K. Shelton is the executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity & Justice.