California’s redistricting plan creates, empowers segregation

California’s evolution into one of the planet’s most economically, culturally and ethnically diverse societies sparks ceaseless political debate, touching everything from illegal immigration to the plight of public education.

We Californians have been less willing to discuss a particularly sensitive aspect of that diversity — the emergence of what can only be called segregation.

Although the state long ago abolished legal segregation, we nevertheless tend to collect ourselves into enclaves, sometimes due to economic necessity but more often reflecting personal preferences to live among others with similar cultural, economic, linguistic, ethnic, generational or even political traits.

The geographic dividing lines among what are euphemistically called “communities” can be very stark, especially in densely populated urban areas, reaching an extreme level in the block-by-block turf wars of street gangs.

They pose a particularly vexing problem for political policymakers: To what extent should they reinforce voluntary segregation by giving these enclaves official status in the name of community empowerment?

Nowhere is that question more pertinent than in the decennial process of redrawing city council, school board, county board of supervisors, legislative and congressional districts from which members will be elected.

The state’s new redistricting commission fully embraced the “community of interest” concept and during countless hours of line-drawing, which reached a semifinal stage over last weekend, they bent over backward to accommodate demands from what its members called COIs.

To some extent, they had no choice. The federal Voting Rights Act, as interpreted by their legal adviser, required them to create a certain number of “majority minority” districts to maximize Latino political clout and to protect the interests of other ethnic groups. And COIs are mentioned in state law.

But the commission also labored hard to meet demands from other self-identified COIs, such as gays, lesbians, environmentalists and Jews. It assumed that its duty was to separate the poor from the rich. Everyone else was merely filler to equalize district populations.

The commission was created to stop politicians from drawing districts to benefit themselves and/or their parties, but in doing so, it gerrymandered another way. It gave official sanction to California’s evolution — or deterioration — from a coherent society with a core of common values into an incoherent collection of clans.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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