March 7, 2011 | The Hill | Original Article

WILLIAMS: New racial order: Hispanics can dare to change political game

There’s a cynical national game of racial politics under way in the congressional redistricting process.

Reapportionment is always political, with Democrats and Republicans trying to redraw the lines of representation to their own advantage. But the startling rise in Hispanic population revealed in the 2010 census is creating an alarming new structure in which minorities get less, not more, voice in Congress.

In Congress, Latino politics over the last decade has been defined by limited roles. A small number of Hispanic Republicans, now eight, line up with the GOP only because of mutual hatred of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The clear majority of Hispanics in Congress are the 17 Democrats who form the reliably liberal Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Now the role of Hispanic power in Congress is about to change again. This time it will be defined by the placement of the rapidly rising number of Hispanic voters as the new districts are drawn.

One approach, articulated by the syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. at February’s national conference of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, is for Hispanics to champion creation of districts with dense Hispanic populations so as to deliver more seats to Hispanic politicians.

The second approach, which I supported at the Chicago conference, argues that Hispanic political power will be better served if it is spread out in the redistricting process over several congressional districts. This would force politicians of every color and both political parties to pay attention to the concerns of Hispanic voters.

Navarrette’s reply to my point of view was simple and honest: Hispanic politicians return his phone calls. White politicians (including those with large numbers of Hispanics in their district) do not.

The Hispanic political community has a decision to make. Do they play by the old rules and seek the highest possible number of Hispanic congressmen? Or do they change the rules? With sharply increased numbers Hispanics have the power to become a sought-after swing vote, a moderating influence on the polarized politics caused by so many hard-right majority-white conservative districts and the smaller number of hard-left black and Latino districts.

We had a display of the old racial order in last year’s midterms. After that election, Republicans control almost two-thirds of the districts where whites are 70 percent of the population. In districts that are more than 40 percent minority, Democrats outpace Republicans 106 to 36.

Writing in the National Journal recently, journalist Ron Brownstein observed that, based on the latest Census numbers, almost exactly half of all House members now represent districts where minorities constitute more than 30 percent of the population. Only a quarter of House districts were that diverse in 1992. In the Senate, there are now 20 states where African-Americans and Hispanics make up more than 30 percent of the population. In 1992, there were only nine such states.

William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, tells me the latest Census shows that states that already had large Hispanic populations will be gaining seats. That means that traditionally red, Republican states such as Texas, Florida, Arizona and even Nevada will be trending to a more purple hue. The question is how to reflect that new reality in Congress.

The argument has a history.

Republicans long ago decided the best way to assure themselves of safe Republican seats is to devise congressional districts with concentrated populations of white voters. The Republicans, who this year have overwhelming control of the redistricting process because they control most state houses, have been willing to give away a few seats to Democrats by concentrating black voters in separate districts. They are content to win the big haul of congressional seats that comes from dominating the larger white vote.

So, as the minority population has increased over the last 30 years, the result of redistricting efforts has been to grow the number of safe Republican seats dominated by white voters while also increasing the size of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Most Americans, I think, want to see members of Congress taking action to solve problems regardless of their race or the racial makeup of their constituencies. And most minorities want to avoid being ignored or boxed in as predictable liberal votes.

The trouble is that politicians, Democrats and Republicans, no matter their skin color, run this redistricting game and they want to win votes, retain power and get their phone calls returned. Ending political polarization and giving minorities more voice in Congress are not high on their list of priorities.