By LaKeshia N. Myers
Martin Luther King once said, “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection” (King, 1963).
The 1980s rap group Whodini put it in laymen’s terms,“With friends like these, who needs enemies?” I find myself pondering this question at the moment. Every 10 years, after the census count, the state legislature undergoes the redistricting process. Each party draws maps (with their own competitive advantage); the party in power is usually the clear winner in the saga, as they have the votes necessary to draw maps in their continued favor. It then becomes the job of the minority party to find candidates, run, and win in districts that numerically favor the opposing party.
In recent years there have been calls by legislatures to remove politicians from the redistricting process altogether, by allowing a non-partisan group of citizens the ability to draw equitable maps, which would not give either party a statistical advantage. In the state of Wisconsin, this would require a change in state statute—a feat that is highly unlikely given the current makeup of the legislature. To circumvent this process, Gov. Tony Evers used his executive authority to create the People’s Map Commission, which was tasked with creating maps that would be fair to all members and give equal opportunity to each side to win. However, the process and results of the PMC maps leave a lot to be desired. Absent within the process was a clear understanding of what was needed for majority minority districts—most of which are situated in the city of Milwaukee (due to population and hyper-segregation)—to remain viable. Instead, the PMC maps focus on “opportunity districts”—meaning seats that could be easily won by a Democratic member, but not necessarily an African American or Hispanic Democrat.
And herein lies the problem. African Americans make up 6.41%, or nearly 374,000, of the state’s population. Of this number, 70% of those African Americans (261,800) live in the City and County of Milwaukee. This translates to six majority African American seats in the state assembly and two state senate seats. This makeup has been consistent since 1993 when then-State Sen. Gwen Moore was elected to the senate and served alongside Spencer Coggs and the predominantly African American assembly districts were split between the two senate seats. By instituting an “opportunity district” system, this would decrease the number of African Americans in the state legislature.
This is what was at stake on the assembly floor last Thursday; therefore, I asked my Democratic colleagues to vote against the PMC map; and thankfully, some of them did. Others chose to take the path of least resistance—upholding a map that was fraught with Voting Rights Act violations and applauding a process that needs to go back to the drawing board. A textbook example of King’s assessment of a white moderate. People who are “with you” when it costs nothing but refusing to stand with you when it counts the most.
There have been only 32 African Americans that have served in the state legislature since our state’s founding in 1848. We have been a continual minority. All but two members have been Democrats (Republicans, Rep. Lucian H. Palmer served in 1907 and Sen. Julian Bradley is currently serving); and each of us are called upon to tow the party line in our respective caucuses for the “greater good.” But what was evident Thursday, was that when the “greater good” means preserving representation for minority communities, we are not on one accord. We are easily dismissed and sorely undervalued; tolerated, but not taken seriously.
Looking ahead to the 2022 election cycle, I urge all people of color to examine the votes of their elected officials, regardless of what party they represent. How has your community fared under their leadership? Ask them where they stand on equity and inclusion—do their votes match their speeches? If they are representatives of color, did they stand with their colleagues of color or did they vote in favor of a process to diminish representation? Lip service is not enough: words must be backed by action.