‘Race blind’: New Texas districts appear to favour white voters

New boundaries decided by Republican-led legislature seem to disadvantage the growing Hispanic population in favour of whites.

A woman casts her ballot in the 2020 general election inside the Basset Place mall in El Paso, Texas on November 3, 2020 [Justin Hamel/AFP]

Two lawsuits allege that political redistricting maps adopted in Texas fail to acknowledge a new demographic reality where white people no longer claim the largest population bloc.

The last 10 years in Texas saw the biggest population boom in the United States, with almost four million new people added – more than any other US state by at least 1.2 million. That is why Texas this year was awarded two additional seats in the US House of Representatives.

White Texans, historically the numerically dominant demographic in the state, accounted for just five percent of that population boom. Hispanic Texans made up nearly half, pushing Texas to the brink of an historic threshold with Hispanics almost outnumbering whites – a tipping point expected this year.

Stickers in Spanish and English and a roll of tape sit on a table at the headquarters of Jolt, a non-profit organisation that works to increase the civic participation of Latinos in Texas [Mark Felix/AFP]

Critics say the new redistricting maps give white voters political influence that outweighs their share of the population. The maps were drawn by Texas’s Republican-dominated state legislature to designate new districts used to elect members to the Texas House of Representatives, the Texas Senate, the Texas State Board of Education and the US House of Representatives.

District boundaries determine which neighbourhoods vote together to pick a single representative, and what happens in Texas can have national consequences. Texas holds the second largest number of seats in the US House of Representatives, and the Texas State Board of Education picks textbooks that are often adopted across much of the country.

The new maps will take effect, pending legal challenges, in February 2022, when early voting begins in Texas primary elections.

People wait in line for more than an hour to vote at Dan Ruiz Branch Library on November 3, 2020 in Austin, Texas [Montinique Monroe /Getty Images/AFP]

One lawsuit filed October 25 by the group Voto Latino alleges the new set of maps “allows white Texans to choose representatives for congressional seats that exist only because of population growth in communities of color”.

“Ninety-five percent of Texas’s population growth between 2010 and 2020 came from communities of color. Black, Latino, and Asian communities all grew far faster than Texas’s white population, with the Latino community growing fastest of all,” the suit says.

In the new map for Texas senate districts, for example, 60 percent of new districts are majority white voting-age population, while whites now only make up 40 percent of Texas.

In State Congressional District 15, which touches the Mexican border in Hispanic South Texas, the new maps narrow the district in its more Hispanic southern reaches while widening its northern end to include more affluent and populous mainly white suburbs of San Antonio.

Changes initially proposed to the 18th Congressional District in Houston would have removed the home of Texas’s fourth longest serving US Representative – Black Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, forcing her to run against incumbent Black Democrat Al Green in the Ninth District. That change was retracted in late October after Lee and Green led community protests.

Redistricting is consistently seen as an opportunity for ruling parties, equally Democrats and Republicans. They solidify control by strategically reshaping boundaries in ways that distribute a party’s reliable constituents as majorities in as many districts as possible – a classic battle that plays out every time new district maps are drawn by partisan committees in Texas or in any other US state. Critics say the politicised process allows some legislatures to pick their own voters.

Voters line up outside Richardson City Hall for early voting on Tuesday, October 13, 2020, in Richardson, Texas, US  [File: LM Otero/AP Photo]

“You can’t even fault the individuals involved in the process, it’s more the fault of the process itself,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas.

“If you are the politician who is going to be running in those districts then obviously you are going to draw the lines in a way that helps yourself and your party.”

As long as maps are drawn by partisan commissions, he said, the process will be exploited by politicians and the same battles will ensue. That is why Common Cause Texas advocates for independent redistricting commissions, not composed of either Republicans or Democrats.

“Redistricting is supposed to be about balancing population,” Gutierrez said. “Looking at where growth has happened, which communities are responsible for the growth then making sure those communities are rewarded in voting strength.”

The chair of Texas’s senate redistricting committee, state Senator Joan Huffman, said in an emailed statement to Al Jazeera that maps were based on input received from the public and from colleagues in the Texas Senate. She said she “was fully committed to a fair and transparent process that complied with all applicable law throughout the redistricting process”.

She consistently told hearings through the redistricting process that maps were drawn “race blind”.

Other Republicans in Texas – where no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994 – also maintain that race should be kept out of the map-making process. James Dickey, Texas GOP chair from 2017 to 2020, said ideas of racial bloc voting come from “the bad old days” when cities and neighborhoods were legally segregated.

“Since in Texas Democrats can’t win they have to claim racism,” he said. “Like they always do.”

Texas’s Asian American population grew by more than 613,000 people between 2010 and 2020, more than three times the growth of the white population during that time.

Ashley Cheng, lead organiser of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Redistricting Coalition in Austin, said she felt that the new maps drew targeted divisions through ethnically cohesive neighborhoods.

“There is a line that goes straight through some of the highest density AAPI communities,” Cheng said.

A bilingual sign stands outside a polling centre at a public library ahead of local elections on April 28, 2013 in Texas, where the Hispanic community has grown in the past decade [ File: John Moore/Getty Images]

Divisions like that, she said, thwart the natural processes by which communities form and come together. When new immigrants arrive, they tend to group around institutions that reflect their culture like specialist grocery stores, temples or churches. When possible they generally seek to settle near people with similar backgrounds and common needs. That can make them a voting bloc.

“We benefit from being able to vote in coalition,” she said. “When communities are split apart it means that they can’t advocate together as a group for what they care about, they don’t have one elected representative they can go to as a group.”

The sharpest tensions in the redistricting effort arose regarding representation of the state’s Hispanic population, which 2020 census numbers showed as close to being the largest demographic group in Texas, said state demographer Lloyd Potter. The 2020 numbers showed white and Hispanic Texans made up 39.7 and 39.3 percent of the state population, respectively. In 2021, he said, the two populations were probably equal.

“It was pretty clear for some time that Latinos were going to overtake the non-Hispanic whites,” Potter told Al Jazeera.

That is in large part due to sluggish growth in the white population because of shrinking family sizes. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that white parents in Texas in 2017 had on average 1.7 children, which is below the rate required for the population to grow.

Hispanic parents in Texas had an average of 2.1 children. Both of those numbers are down from historic rates in 1990 of 1.9 for whites and 3.2 for Hispanics, according to figures from the Population Reference Bureau.

These demographic changes may lead to changes in what it means to be Hispanic in Texas, according to Hector de Leon, a longtime organiser who currently works in Harris County government in Houston.

He said Hispanic people have historically been viewed as outsiders in the US, even though many have blood native to the Americas and predate white settlement in Texas.

A shopper wearing a mask for protection against COVID-19 leaves a grocery store that is also serving as an early polling site, on Thursday, July 9, 2020, in Austin, Texas [File: Eric Gay/AP Photo]

“When are we going to stop viewing ourselves as minorities? We are equal to them (whites) in population,” de Leon said. “We have historically been portrayed as a minority, as the few. When in reality we are the many.”

He said he hopes that in future redistricting efforts, if Hispanic people comprise 40 percent of the state population, they should claim majorities in 40 percent of new districts drawn.

Source: Al Jazeera