2006: New Senate Map Is Unfair To Latinos

An opinion piece written by Nellie Gorbea which appeared in the Providence Journal on February 6, 2002

New Senate Map is Unfair To Latinos

MEMBERS of the Latino community of Rhode Island have repeatedly testified at the legislature's public hearings on redistricting that the current plans for the Senate seats in Providence are unacceptable.

It is important to realize that this statement is not new. Latinos have raised these concerns at every opportunity provided by the Redistricting Commission. These are not a capricious concerns, they are based on the fundamental rules of our legal system regarding redistricting and on the results of straight number -- the 2000 Census.

The U.S. Constitution requires that legislative districts be approximately equal in population size to each other. Thus, every person's vote has equal strength, from district to district. The Supreme Court also has indicated that legislative boundaries must be drawn so as to create compact districts with contiguous borders that respect existing political subdivisions or communities of interest. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and subsequent case law forbid the dilution of minorities in the redistricting process. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act state: "No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."

U.S. Supreme Court cases have further clarified this act by providing three defining conditions that must be present for minorities to demand a district in which they hold a majority. These conditions are: (1) a minority group must be large enough to live in high enough density that a compact district can be drawn in which the minority is a majority, (2) the minority group must have a history of political cohesiveness or have voted as a group, and (3) the white majority has historically voted as a group so that minority group candidates are usually defeated.

The 2000 Census reported that the Hispanic population in Rhode Island had doubled from approximately 45,000 in 1990 to 90,000 in 2000. During this same period, Rhode island's population increased from 1,003,464 to 1,048,319 -- an increase of 44,855. Basically, Rhode Island's population growth is due to that of the Latino community.

Because our system of political distribution is based on on person, one vote, and increase in population adds political power to a state. Let's keep this in mind as we look at Providence.

Population in Providence grew a total of 12,890 from 160,728 in 1990 to 127,618 in 2000. During that same decade, Latinos doubled their population from 24,982 in 1990 to 52,146 in 2000. According to the 2000 Census, Latinos now make up 30 percent of the population in Providence. You can see in in the school classrooms, in the home-sale transactions reported in The Journal on Saturdays, and in the thriving entrepreneurial activity that is essential to the vitality of the city. But we have not seen similar growth in Latino representation in elected office.

The Redistricting Commission claims to have created four majority minority Senate districts in Providence. There are several problems with that Claim. First of all, if one looks at the demographics of those districts, focusing on such factors as voting-age population and voter registrations, one quickly realizes that those are not majority minority districts. They may be sometime in the future, but they are not so today. Second, the commission is treating all minorities as if they were one community of interest.

This is, sadly, not the case yet. African-Americans, Southeast Asians and Latinos do not vote together as one block. Any look at electoral races in Providence over the past 10 years will clearly demonstrate this. In fact, politicians frequently have taken advantage of this lack of unity and further fueled the divide between various minority groups in Providence. The placing of Sen. Charles Walton, and African-American who is the state's only minority senator in a district with at least one very strong Latino contender is a clear example of this strategy.

Because of their numbers, their density and geographic compactness, Latinos in Providence should be able to gain at least on senatorial district where a majority of the voting age population is Latino. We will not be appeased by clever words that hide reality. The current Senate plan dilutes the Latino vote in all districts so that we are never able to elect the candidate of our choice. It also encourages confrontation with the state's only African-American senator.

Under the rules of redistricting, it is clear that we are not asking for special treatment. We are demanding that our community derive some of the benefits that we have granted the state by believing in Rhode Island enough to make it our home.

Like French-Canadians, Irish, Portuguese, Italians, Cape Verdeans and other immigrant groups, Latinos are in Rhode Island to stay. We exhort the legislature to live up to Roger Williams legacy and recognize and welcome our community to the political power structure or Rhode Island.

Nellie M. Gorbea is the president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee