Scurrilous charges by the NAACP

Published 10:07 pm Wednesday, February 8, 2012

By its very nature, redistricting is a complicated and political process, a process that always creates some winners and some losers.

Ask Fred Quayle how painful it can be. While Virginia’s General Assembly meets in Richmond this month, the former state senator from Suffolk sits at home for the first time in nearly two decades — not because he couldn’t get re-elected, but because following the decennial census, his fellow senators redrew his district last year in such a way that it did not include him.

Statewide redistricting of Virginia’s senatorial districts cost Suffolk a well-respected and effective senator. It was a great loss for Suffolk, but it came down to two things: population growth and politics. Growth in Northern Virginia had outpaced that of Hampton Roads during the previous 10 years, and that growth cost our area a seat in the senate.

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Something similar happened in Suffolk as a result of the decennial population count. The city’s northern end grew much faster than other parts, leading to a significant redrawing of the boundaries between Suffolk’s boroughs. The process, as undertaken by city officials, resulted in one city councilman, Leroy Bennett, becoming displaced from the borough he represents and two School Board members, Thelma Hinton and Diane Foster, facing the same fate.

Was the city’s redistricting process politically motivated? Possibly. City officials claim it wasn’t, but there’s some feeling among council watchers that Bennett’s fate was payback for his opposition to a couple of controversial budget proposals last year. Maybe it was retaliation, and maybe it wasn’t. But even if revenge was at the heart of Suffolk’s redistricting process, that kind of thing is just what one might expect from a process with such potential for political shenanigans.

What seems utterly unlikely is that his fate is the result of racism. Bennett is black, and so is Hinton. But so is the city manager whose budget Bennett opposed. And so is the city staffer who was placed in charge of creating the redistricting plan. And so are two of the City Council members who voted in favor of that plan.

The NAACP, however, would have us ignore or discount all of those facts in its quest to get the U.S. Department of Justice to overrule Suffolk’s proposed redistricting plan, thereby rescuing Bennett and Hinton. In a letter from chapter President Lue Ward to Justice Department officials, the organization claims that Suffolk is attempting to “purge” African-Americans from the council.

In support of its charge, the NAACP claims the black council members who voted in favor of the plan were coerced to do so. It claims police officers working at a heavily attended public hearing on the plan were there “in an unprecedented and intimidating way.” And it claims that NAACP officials were barred from presenting an alternative plan at various community meetings.

Those claims range from disingenuous to outright false, and each represents a cynical low point in the discourse of American civil rights. Clearly, there are many in the African-American community who would be sorry to see Leroy Bennett and Thelma Hinton lose their seats. But to attempt to protect them by resorting to such insulting, inflammatory and baseless rhetoric is beneath the NAACP and should be beneath the two whose seats are threatened.

Politics will always be a part of redistricting. Bigotry, on the other hand, should long ago have ceased having a part in the deliberations. Considering the lives and reputations that are at stake, a charge of racism in the process should have far more solid a foundation than the NAACP presented in its letter to the Justice Department.