On Friday, leaders in Milwaukee County's black community put on "a brainstorming conference" at St. Matthew's Episcopalian church to consider how redistricting would impact the black community. The meeting's general design was to get minorities energized, united, and prepared to oppose a newly empowered GOP Legislature.
The venue had two separate special guest panels, elected Democrats on one side and unelected Democrats on the other. The major headliners of the show were Mayor Tom Barrett, Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Common Council President Willie Hines, County Supervisor Michael Mayo, and State Senator Spencer Coggs.
Supervisor Mayo was among the first elected officials to speak. Defensively, Mayo argued that the County's redistricting process was both transparent and legal. He also rejected the notion that the Board had engaged in an illegal maneuver identified as "packing," a process where politicians draw district boundaries that shift minority populations in places that deliberately dilute their voting strength and tapering their influence over government policy.
As with most communities, there is bound to be some intramural conflict. The NAACP and Afro World Enterprises vocalized opposition to the efforts of the County Board to downsize from 19 to 18. Michelle Bryant, Executive Director of African World Festival, made an example of Supervisor Mayo criticizing the board for their hushed and hurried redistricting proposal. Bryant also criticized the Board for carving out a seat without providing the public an proper explanation.
The concern of pitting blacks against Latinos was first raised by Supervisor Mayo and followed up by Michelle Bryant, the Executive Director of African World Festival. A participant at the event asked if the panel had expected any contentious infighting between blacks and Latinos on redistricting. Bryant mentioned El Conquistador's recent article reporting that black influence on the County Board was six times greater than Latinos. Bryant also noted that Maria Cameron, President and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, had questioned why blacks had so many County Board seats while Latinos had so few.
Bryant didn't offer an answer, but described the problem as the "beginnings of pitting one group against the other." Perhaps she's right. By refusing to acknowledge that a growing Latino community requires more majority districts, black leadership on the County Board is not a passive dissenter, but a part of the problem.
Some have asked why it's so important for minority groups to band together. After all, we're all Americans, right?
History shows that immigrants tend to cluster together when they have problems assimilating. In the 1850s, Irish Catholic immigrants struggled to live in an otherwise heavily Protestant America. Few people hired them, their children were mocked in elementary schools, and those who held public office were sometimes driven out by angry Protestant constituents. As instinctively then as it is right now, Irish-Catholics learned to band together in cities like Charleston and New Orleans.
Like the Irish, Italian immigrants endured discrimination because of their Catholicism. In cities like Boston and New York, they formed enclaves known as "little Italies," where they assembled for their own protection. As Protestants and Catholics learned to play nicely in the same sandbox, Irish and Italian immigrants eventually acclimatized.
Although past immigration shares a lot in common with the present, there are some important distinctions. Last year, Pew Research showed that 7 in 10 foreign-born Latinos believe discrimination has kept them from succeeding in the U.S. In another survey, 23% of Americans believe that Hispanics face frequent discrimination while only 18% of Americans say the same of African-Americans. The cause of prejudice can be difficult to ascertain, but surveys seem to suggest that language proficiency and illegal immigration are sticking issues.
With the Irish and the Italians, the trigger for discrimination was religious intolerance. For the German, Japanese, and even Italian immigrants, it was the start of World War II. But for Latinos, the problem may be more perennial.
We've learned that religious intolerance will subside and wars eventually end, but as long as our elected officials refuse to tackle the problem of illegal immigration - no easy feat by any stretch - it will continue to be difficult for Latinos to assimilate. This is all the more reason for Latinos to band together.
Chairman of the County Board Lee Holloway reassured town hall guests that every time he downsized the County Board, he "created more power for the African-American community." He also boasted of increasing "black representation power" by 40% under the tenure of his chairmanship.
Similarly, State Senator Spencer Coggs, one of the Rockford 14, said, "Whatever we do, whether it's on a city level, on a county level, on a state level, brothers and sisters, we must maximize African American representation."
It's discouraging to see black leaders like Lee Holloway and Spencer Coggs working to maximize black power rather than identify a social injustice in the Hispanic community.
A distinction should be made between maximizing representation and creating equal representation; they mean very different things in a functioning democracy. Equal representation ensures that minorities like us have a fair say in their government and that our influence is roughly proportional to shifts in our population growth. Maximizing representation, a position taken by both Holloway and Coggs, has no use for population shifts because population shifts are quantifiable and can be verified.
Maximizing representation is another way of saying they always want more despite what's equal and fair. "United we stand" only means something if we're willing to share in the sacrifice.