Published in
The Empire

Can Brooklyn's historical black Congressional district survive?

Update: Links to the US Census Bureau statics are not include in links.

In our first installment examining how the decennial redistricting process affects—and is affected by—ethnic and racial communities of interest, we took a look at Queens’ growing Asian community who are calling for more opportunities to be part of the political process. We made our own plurality Asian Congressional district, which brought up the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the role it’s played in New York City politics.

Few communities have benefited more from the VRA than the black community. While Harlem has been cast as the symbolic center for black politics in New York City, the real epicenter of black political power is Brooklyn. It has been, and remains, the borough with the largest African American, Caribbean and continental African population.

But as with the rest of the city, Brooklyn’s black population is in a state of flux. A number of external and internal forces have reduced the relative and absolute population of people of African descent, and the trend lines going forward indicate a city that will continue to be less black. The waning size of the black population—sooner or later—will have a corresponding effect on black political power in the city.

If you were looking for a symbol for the past, current, and future black political fortunes in Brooklyn, the 11th Congressional District is it. Though its name and shape has changed, the compact Central Brooklyn district has reliably sent a black member of Congress since its creation in the late 1960s. While that will certainly remain the case for the foreseeable future, the question of a decrease in black political strength in Brooklyn and elsewhere is no longer an if, but a when.

The VRA was passed in 1965, at a time when black voting power in the city was on the to rise. It not only quickly created a concrete opportunities for black candidates to be elected , but thanks to an outflow of whites  the black community increased, as a proportion of the city’s population,.

“Shortly thereafter there was a rising call in New York City to actually see the electorates covered by the Voting Rights Act,” said Esmeralda Simmons, the executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. “In particular we're talking about the black community, which includes predominately African American and Caribbean American at that point--to see that their voting strength actualized."

Simmons’ family was among those that made their way to Brooklyn during this critical time period, helping to create the critical mass necessary for the creation for a black district under the VRA. Centered on the neighborhoods of Crown Heights, Flatbush, and Prospect Heights, the then-12th Congressional district sent the first African American woman to Congress in 1968. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm continued to represent the district until 1987.

“That was a stellar moment in the rising of black voting power in New York City, because, until that time, the only Congressional district that had existed was the Harlem district," Simmons said. “So when Brooklyn created a district and actually elected a black person to that office, it was seen as a rising of black political power in Brooklyn.”

By the end of the 1970s, Simmons said, Brooklyn had surpassed Harlem in black population, becoming the largest black community in the Northern hemisphere. The 1980s were the zenith of black voting power. Another Congressional seat was created in Brooklyn, which Congressman Ed Towns has held since his election in 1982. By the end of the decade, New York City had elected its first and only black mayor, David Dinkins.

After the 1990 census, the basic lines the 11th District has today were drawn. At the time, the district was 74 percent black. It was during that decade that the city began a transformation that has led to the changes being felt today.

Two Decades of Change

According to the 2000 census, 71 percent of the district identified itself as black or African American. Ten years later that number had dropped to 58 percent—a 16 point slide over two decades.

It’s a trend seen throughout the city. As a total population, according to the 2010 census, the black community is 46,000 fewer people than it was a decade before and represents just over a quarter of the city’s population. Compare this to, say, the Asian population, which went from just over 10 percent in 2000 to more than 13 percent today. More people now identify as Latino/Hispanic than black/African American in New York City.

But ethnic community competition and out migration are just two of the challenges to black voting strength in the city. The other big issue—possibly the biggest—is gentrification.

Chris Owens, a local Brooklyn Democratic Party leader and the son of Congressman Major Owens who represented the district after Chisholm, said the effects of this shift could be seen in his father’s last Congressional race in 2004.

“When my father was running for reelection, he was challenged by two city council members--Yvette Clarke and Tracy Boyland--each based in a different part of the district,” Owens recalled. “As the campaign manager I made the strategic decision that we would subdivide the Congressional district into three parts, reflecting the demographic realities of the time.”

The division was between the mostly white far Western part of the district, the Northern African American area, and the Southern part home to the large Caribbean community. Boyland’s base of support was in the Northern area, Clarke's in the Southern. Owens lost to each in their respective territories. He won the primary with only 45 percent of the vote.

“Now, in 2012, we're facing the fact that that Western portion of the district…which was overwhelming white, and middle class or upper class, has started really expanding past Flatbush Avenue, into Crown Heights [and] almost all of Prospect Heights,” he said, pointing out that the comparative census maps of racial population in Prospect Heights from 1992 and 2012 are “literally…night and day.”

“You have this push that's taking place and, in another 10 years, the 11th Congressional District will probably look very, very, very different, racially and ethnically, than it does today,” he said.

Not If, But When

The redrawing of Congressional district lines is the last step in the redistricting process. What the final map will look like is still a mystery, but there are some clues.

First, the district’s going to grow. That’s just a matter of fact. Since New York State is losing two congressional seats, every remaining district needs to grow to represent 717,708 people. The current population of the 11th is more than 85,000 people short—the most, percentage-wise, of any of the city’s Congressional districts.

Second, it’s assumed that the current Congresswoman, Yvette Clarke, will want to increase her base of support by bringing in more of the Caribbean community that’s grown to the Southwest. Clarke, who said her first priority is keeping in compliance with the VRA, believes keeping these communities of interest together in a new district “would make some sense.”

Clarke won a four-way primary for the 11th Congressional district in 2006 that included, for the first time since passage of the VRA, a white candidate, Councilman David Yassky. She says the districts transition is far from complete.

“The change has been, it's been gradual and it's been an integrative change,” she said. “New residents tend to be immigrants and tend to be non-people of color. It’s not to the point where it has changed the character of the overall Congressional district."

When asked about how the changes would affect the power of the black community politically, the Congresswoman noted that the black community has always worked with others to reach its goals.

“African Americans have played a significant role in the political life of this town and they will continue to do so for quite some time," she said. “But remember that their political empowerment had always been in coalition with other ethnic groups in the city."

Still, change is coming. As Chris Owens noted, it might be twenty years in the making, but if the current demographic and economic trajectories hold there could come a point when Brooklyn’s two black Congressional districts might revert back to just one. But everyone agreed that this was more than just a local political issue. Losing the voice of the black community—whether in the City Council or Congress—will mean the loss of an important point of view.

“Without representation that can affect change--that can understand the culture dynamics, the concerns, the history--it makes it very difficult,” Clarke said.