Asian-American civic groups are pushing for redistricting in Brooklyn that would give growing Asian ethnic groups a district and representation of their own.
Claiming that the Asian vote is too diluted across many districts, the groups are hoping to splice together sections of Sunset Park, Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights in a new district that would have a majority population of Chinese immigrants and their descendants.
After holding a public hearing last month, the New York State Legislative Task Force is expected to release a first draft of new district lines in January. District boundaries are remapped every decade to reflect demographic changes demonstrated by the federal census. If drawn correctly, districts should be areas of people that share some a common denominator. The law also stipulates that it must be contiguous and reasonably compact: its length should be no more than twice its width.
“We’re seeing in places like Sunset Park—and we’re seeing throughout New York—that the Asian population is currently at 20 percent or more and we think that could necessitate, or in theory you could argue for, the creation of more Asian-American districts,” says Rachael Fauss, the Policy and Research Manager for Citizens Union.
Research from the group shows that 15 assembly districts in the state have Asian-American populations of more than 20 percent and three are at 40 percent or more— not that you would ever know it by looking at the state legislature. No Asian-American has ever won an election in Brooklyn and currently, there is only one Asian-American representative, Grace Meng of Queens in a lower house made up of 212 legislators.
Meng’s district encompasses Flushing and was created during the last redistricting in 2000 to better represent the flourishing Chinatown in Queens. The new lines helped lead to Meng’s election as the first Asian-American in the state legislature.
“They drew that with kind of an eye towards empowering the Asian-American community,” says James Hong who works with the MinKwon organization and the Asian-American Community Coalition On Redistricting and Democracy (ACCORD). “I feel that everybody thinks that was well done.”
“But other than that, most of the Asian-American communities—East Asian, South Asian—were cut up. There was definitely potential for much stronger pluralities. Instead they were cut up into two, three, four, or five districts. I hope other districts will do what that district did, which is to keep a community of interest together.”
The current district boundaries were drawn using the 2000 Census numbers when Asian-Americans were 5.5 percent of the state’s population. The latest 2010 Census shows that the Asian population surged by a third in New York City and is now 7.3 percent of the population, making it the fastest growing racial group in the state.
Underrepresentation is not a uniquely Asian problem. “There’s also been a growth among the Latino population,” Fauss states. “Something we’ve been pointing out is that the state legislature doesn’t currently reflect the diversity of New York state.”
The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that districts not be drawn to weaken or abridge minority voters.
Various civic groups say that the status quo is doing precisely that, however. In Brooklyn, the neighboring Chinese communities in Bensonhurst, Sunset Park and Bay Ridge are split into several electoral districts.
Hong says Asian-Americans are denied the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the political process as a result: “At almost every level of government and almost every neighborhood, you see that it is split up so collectively, their voice is weakened. They can’t really come to the polls and have a unified impact through the electoral process.”
The new lines must be drawn by next summer. ACCORD officials say that many people still misunderstand the reasoning behind their push for uniting sections of Sunset Park, Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights.
“We’ve said over and over again that this is not purely an attempt to get more Asian-Americans into office,” Hong said. “Though if the districts happen the way we want them, that may happen in the next few years.”
He makes it clear they are not lobbying for any particular candidate either. “There are—and I think there will be—some white candidates or candidates of other ethnicities that represent an Asian community well and vice versa. You don’t necessarily have to have an Asian representative to represent an Asian community. That’s never been part of our platform.”
Their focus is on seeing voters empowered and keeping them in the same district when they belong in the same community of interest. “We’re saying, hey, there’s something that looks like voter dilution that’s happening as a result of these lines, and we’re just trying to remedy that.”
In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in Shaw v. Reno that race could not be the predominant factor in setting district lines, though it could be one component.
Jerry Vattamalla, a staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, says it’s not enough for one area to be dominated by any particular ethnic group to call for redistricting. The people need to “vote similarly and have similar interests.” Other areas the city taskforce will look at include common cultural background; shared language and language access needs; media markets; immigrant concerns; and public transportation.
Vattamalla says redistricting takes time and intense analysis because of all the competing interests. People grouped together by current districts may also have concerns about being split up in order to create this majority Asian-American district. “Nobody wants their community divided. That’s something the task force will have to decide on,” he said.