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Proposed Michigan redistricting maps would marginalize Black voters, Detroit activists and politicians say

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Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission

Maps from the Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission that lumped parts of Detroit in with largely white suburbs, driving the percentage of Black people below 50%, spark outrage.

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will hold a meeting in Detroit Wednesday to allow for the residents of the country’s largest Black-majority city to give feedback on proposed new state and congressional districts.

Black politicians and activists are expressing concern about the process.

“We cannot afford to lose our democracy. We cannot afford to the pain, the blood, the sweat, the tears that we have fought and given and shed in the soil of this land, for it to be taken from us by folk who want to draw a map that denies us.”
Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit NAACP

The Rev. Wendell Anthony has seen how the lines have been drawn, and draws a few of his own.

“We have come too far to lose anything. We don’t want to be stacked up. We don’t want to be cracked out. We don’t want to be packed out. We don’t want to be wrapped up,” Anthony says. ”We want maps that reflect who we are.”

Rhetorical flourishes aside, the president of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP knows that packing Black people into high-percentage districts — or diluting districts down to small numbers of minorities — is a tried and true way to marginalize the Democrat-supporting Black electorate.

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“When we don’t have people who represent us, who have experiences like ours, then we have legislation and bills and laws that affect us every single day that don’t reflect us,” says State Rep. Tenisha Yancey, (D-Detroit).

State Rep. Tenisha Yancey (D-Detroit) says that approach has lasting consequences.

“When we don’t have people who represent us, who have experiences like ours,” Yancey says, ”then we have legislation and bills and laws that affect us every single day that don’t reflect us.”

So that’s why there was outrage when the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission put forth several maps that lumped parts of Detroit in with largely white suburbs, driving the percentage of Black people below 50%.

When the suburbs get involved in Detroit politics, says Sen. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit), the realities of the region’s income inequality come into play.

“I just had a community fundraiser and it was amazing and the community came out and they’re excited about their candidate, right, because I’m from Detroit. I know their issues. I’ve lived here my entire life,” Young says. ”But did that fundraiser raise a bunch of money? No.”

That’s why State Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) rallied activists and the Detroiters in the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus last week.

“This was a conscious effort to try and meet what they thought was the criteria and draw these maps,” says Hollier. ”We’re here to say collectively that not only is that not acceptable, but that’s not what’s supposed to be done.”

That’s kind of right, according to one expert.

“Something that’s unique specifically to Michigan is the requirement that the districts be fair that they meet some level of fairness according to accepted measures of partisan fairness,” says redistricting expert and University of Colorado-Boulder law professor Doug Spencer.

Partisan fairness is a key component to fixing the state’s Republican-gerrymandered advantage in Michigan. So are “communities of interest” and guidelines set in the Voting Rights Act. Fairness is also what sets the state’s redistricting commission apart from the others.

“But compared to other states that are operating with less independent commissions, like in Virginia or in Ohio,” says Spencer, ”what we’ve seen out of Michigan is actually quite remarkable. I think it could be used as a way forward in some states.”

“Compared to other states that are operating with less independent commissions, like in Virginia or in Ohio, what we’ve seen out of Michigan is actually quite remarkable. I think it could be used as a way forward in some states.”
Doug Spencer, University of Colorado-Boulder

That’s little comfort for those like Anthony who have been down this road before.

“We cannot afford to lose our democracy. We cannot afford to the pain, the blood, the sweat, the tears that we have fought and given and shed in the soil of this land, for it to be taken from us by folk who want to draw a map that denies us,” he says.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder famously said, “The biggest rigged system in America is gerrymandering.” He is now the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. He says the time to act is now.

“We can’t wait until we get to the polls we have to make sure that the processes that lead up to the voting is fair as well.”

Holder says the more people are involved with the functions of government, the better it is.

“Having the involvement of citizens in this process I think will give us a much better result,” Holder says.

As the Michigan redistricting commission holds meetings in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit this week, Hollier has this message: “If we don’t elect Black elected officials, nobody else is going to.”

He’s not wrong. Out of 148 total seats in Michigan’s House and Senate, only three majority-white districts are represented by Black legislators.

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