NAACP: City ‘purging’ blacks

Published 10:40 pm Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A letter sent by the Suffolk branch of the NAACP to the U.S. Department of Justice accuses the city of racial gerrymandering and urges the department to deny approval of the plan.

On Monday, the Justice Department released a letter dated Friday asking the city to provide more information about the process the city used to adopt its redistricting plan and records from meetings where the plan was discussed. City spokeswoman Debbie George said the city believes it is possible the Justice Department was swayed by the letter from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was dated Feb. 1.

“If the city’s proposed map is approved, we fear that it will have a negative effect on the voting strength, as well as the representation of African-Americans in the political process,” the letter says. “It is our position that the submitted map is retrogressive and only enables African-Americans to narrowly gain two out of the seven boroughs.”

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All localities in Virginia and other states with a history of denying suffrage to certain racial groups must obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before making any changes to voting districts or polling places.

The city had to redraw borough boundaries after its population grew by a third in the past 10 years. Most of the growth was in the northeast quadrant of the city, meaning those boroughs had to become smaller, and others larger, to meet a target population of 12,084 in each borough.

The final plan, according to the city, contains four majority-black boroughs. NAACP paralegal Kendra Glover contends that the plan actually has only two majority-black boroughs, along with two “possible” — that is, where blacks could elect a candidate of their choice only with help from other voters.

The controversial plan approved by City Council would eliminate black Nansemond borough representatives Leroy Bennett and Thelma Hinton from the City Council and School Board, respectively, as well as School Board member Diane Foster, who is white.

The letter says that the “purging” of black representation will have a negative effect on black voters and that potential future residential development in the Whaleyville borough would lower the percentage of blacks there.

In addition, the branch offers “circumstantial evidence” of the city’s alleged intention to reduce black voting strength, claiming that the city refused to allow the organization to present its alternative plan to citizens at community meetings.

It also claims that police presence at an Oct. 5 public hearing was meant to intimidate the large number of black visitors, even though all City Council meetings are covered by at least two police officers — sometimes more when a crowd is expected.

“The letter is about how the NAACP felt,” Glover said. “We felt they were there in an intimidating way.”

Finally, the letter says that the two black City Council members who voted for the plan — Vice Mayor Charles Brown and Councilman Curtis Milteer — succumbed to peer pressure, rather than voting as they truly felt.

“It is the view of the Suffolk Branch that their votes failed to reflect their genuine beliefs, but, instead, appeared to reflect pressure to conform to the majority’s will,” the letter states.

The NAACP letter is signed by Suffolk chapter President Lue Ward and has his name on the letterhead, as well as that of legal redress chair Johnnie Edwards. They referred questions to Glover. None of the three would reveal who composed the letter.

“It was composed by the NAACP,” Glover said.

She added the burden is on the city to prove it did not intend to dilute the black vote.

In a statement issued Monday night, city spokeswoman Debbie George said the letter contained “unsubstantiated and misleading information.”