The 2020 Census data release has made the scale of demographic change in the United States crystal clear. More than ever before, communities of color are fueling the country’s population growth. It is imperative that the communities leading this growth be front and center as states and local governments around the country redraw electoral maps. Maps at all levels of government – from school boards and city councils to Congress – must reflect a more diverse, multiracial America.
Last decade, for the first time in American history, people of color and people who identify as two or more races were responsible for the totality of the country’s population growth. American Indian and Alaska Natives of one or more races experienced the largest growth of any population group, growing 86 percent to 9.7 million people. Overall, fast-growing Latino and Asian communities accounted for 74 percent of growth, while the population of non-Hispanic whites fell in absolute terms for the first time since the original 1790 census. Overall, 61 of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas experienced a decline in white population, as did nearly 8 in 10 U.S. counties. This trend will only continue: only North Dakota and Utah saw their under-18 white populations increase last decade.
America is diversifying in urban and suburban areas alike. Today, a majority of Black, Latino, Native Americans, and Asian Americans in metro regions live in suburbs — not urban centers. In 1990, Gwinnett County, Georgia, northeast of Atlanta, was 90 percent white. Today, it is 35 percent white. Fort Bend County, in suburban Houston, has likewise gone from being 90 percent white thirty years ago to barely 32 percent white today. Similar profound changes are taking place all over America.
Demographic change is reshaping political power in these communities. In 2018, Fort Bend County in Texas elected an Indian American county executive (the first non-white person to hold the post), and neighboring Harris County elected the first Latino and first woman to serve as county executive. That same year saw the election of Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, the first Native American women elected to Congress. In 2020, Gwinnett County in Georgia elected its first Black sheriff as well as the first Asian American woman to serve in the State Senate. Candidates of color have won elections or become increasingly competitive, from the suburbs of Los Angeles to the suburbs of New York.
However, the upcoming cycle of redistricting poses a grave risk to the opportunities to increase political power by communities of color. How district lines are drawn could undermine existing or emerging electoral opportunities or prevent the emergence of new ones, resulting in maps that do not reflect the diversity of the country and instead perpetuate unequal resource allocation for education, roads, healthcare and other community priorities.
State and local governments must commit to ensuring that communities of color can influence and impact the political process by maintaining an open and accessible redistricting process to all members of diverse communities. Only by hearing directly from communities can map drawers understand the nuanced concerns and representational needs of community members. For example, the Buford Highway Corridor outside of Atlanta's city limits has long been home to a robust immigrant and first-generation American community. However, Atlanta’s significant population boom has sped up development and gentrification in the corridor, threatening the way of life of this immigrant and first-generation community. Public engagement is critical to ensuring that the voices and needs of communities are heard in the drawing of lines that will affect their day-to-day lives.
Unfortunately, we already see disturbing signs that map drawers are not committed to extensive public engagement. Sometimes, in fact, decision-makers are delaying the start of the redistricting cycle as a ploy to cut the public, and especially communities of color, out of the process. In Alabama, public redistricting hearings have been scheduled exclusively during weekdays and during working hours, making it difficult for everyday working Alabamians to be involved in the process and make their voices heard. In response, local advocates are collaborating to host virtual town hall public hearing debriefings to raise awareness and educate communities. And in North Dakota, Tribal Nations have been requesting hearings on reservations in North Dakota for months due to high levels of poverty and the difficulty to travel to urban areas to attend hearings. Yet, the legislature has refused to hold hearings on reservations. And in Florida, no public hearings have been scheduled despite the wide availability and access provided after the 2010 Census. Civil society organizations and grassroots activists are leading the charge to ensure that responsibility for expanding opportunities for participation and engagement that state and local governments are omitting, often willfully. But they should not solely bear the responsibility for expanding opportunities for participation and engagement. Map drawers are responsible to the public as a whole, and by their actions, they must show that they are committed to representing all of America.
Even though map drawing is already underway in some states, there is still time to act and impact the process. Without acknowledgement of the shifting demographics and the engagement of the public in the redistricting process, we face a decades-long threat to the political power of communities of color. We call on all state and local governments responsible for redistricting to ensure that the largest- and fastest-growing communities in our country are heard and represented in the redistricting process.
The Voting Rights Working Group is a loose consortium of 12 of the nation’s most prominent and experienced non-profit organizations pursuing voting rights litigation on behalf of racial minorities. Our member organizations are non-partisan legal advocacy groups with decades of experience in using the law to promote and protect the voting rights of people of color. Our member organizations are: