Blacks seek new political power in once-white suburbs

With more blacks moving from city to suburb, the National Urban League says it is worried states may improperly seek to stem the political clout of African-Americans as they spread into historically white districts.

The leader of the 101-year-old organization also says he is troubled by complaints from big-city mayors such as those in New York and Detroit who contend large pockets of their residents were missed in the 2010 census. Blacks historically have been more likely to be missed in the decennial count and preliminary numbers for 2010 suggest that could have happened again.

“We have to give consideration as to whether there is an undercount,” Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, told The Associated Press.

In its annual “State of Black America” report being released Thursday, the civil-rights group paints a picture of African-Americans at a crossroads following decades of progress from the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

It notes growing equality between blacks and whites in employment, even as blacks remain more likely to be poor and jobless in the current economic slump. And it cites a wider black influence in politics — particularly in the South and the suburbs — that buoyed Democrat Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008, before waning enthusiasm in 2010 led to tepid black turnout and widespread wins for Republicans and tea party conservatives.

With new census figures showing blacks less concentrated in inner cities and spreading to suburban communities, Morial says African-Americans must be vigilant against subtle discrimination when states redraw their political maps.

In Michigan, for instance, mostly black Detroit could see its clout diminish in Congress after losing a quarter of its population. Black lawmakers say they want to make sure that redrawn political maps — which are being guided by the Republican-controlled Michigan legislature — reflect the growing minority population in other cities and suburbs elsewhere in the state.

In Virginia, where almost a fifth of residents are black, African-American members of the state legislature are calling for a second U.S. House district that would favor black candidates. But some redistricting experts say that redrawing lines to do that could be difficult, partly because blacks are somewhat spread out in the state.

The outcome ultimately may depend on the Justice Department or a federal court, which must preapprove redistricting plans in Virginia and several other Southern states to ensure that minorities’ voting strength is upheld under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“We will be closely watching to see if there is an effort by states to dilute the impact of the black suburban vote,” Morial said.

The “State of Black America” report also urges Obama and Congress to increase federal aid for jobs in the nation’s hardest-hit communities, many of which are disproportionately minority.

Among the recommendations:

—Spend $5 billion to $7 billion to hire up to 5 million teens as part of a Youth Summer Jobs Program that would improve opportunities for urban young people, who have higher rates of unemployment.

—Create “green empowerment zones,” which would offer tax incentives to manufacturers of solar panels and wind turbines if they open plants in high-unemployment areas.

—Expand small-business lending.

According to census figures released last week, the population of African-Americans increased over the last decade to 37.7 million and ranks as the third largest racial and ethnic group, after whites and Hispanics. Since the 2000 census, many blacks have left big cities such as Detroit, Chicago and New York for the suburbs, especially in the South. Both Michigan and Illinois saw their first declines in the black population since statehood.

The Census Bureau’s preliminary comparison of the 2010 count to a set of independent government estimates based on birth and death records suggests that the census figure for blacks could have been undercounted by 1.5 to 3.8 percent.

Victoria Velkoff, an assistant division chief of the Census Bureau’s Population Estimates and Projections, said in an interview that it was too early to tell whether there was a black undercount in the 2010 census without additional analysis, now under way.

In 2000, the Census Bureau determined it had undercounted blacks by roughly 2.8 percent, many of them in dense urban areas. That assessment was based on the agency’s comparison of the 2000 count to independent birth and death records.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing already have said they will contest the 2010 counts for their cities. Those challenges are mostly aimed at getting a higher population count that would bring a larger share of federal dollars to their cities for schools, roads and health care.

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