Time to move on

Published 10:05 pm Saturday, June 9, 2012

In what was easily one of the two most controversial proposals considered by Suffolk City Council during the past year, the redrawing of election district lines within Suffolk threatened at one time to tear apart friendships and split long-held alliances.

It’s an indictment of the politics of racial division in America that the situation ever got as out of hand as it did. Leroy Bennett, a black council member from the Nansemond Borough, and Thelma Hinton, a black School Board member from the same borough, both would lose their seats under the redistricting plan that finally received “pre-approval” from the U.S. Justice Department on Friday. The approval process had been held up for months because of a challenge to it leveled on behalf of the two representatives by the local chapter of the NAACP.

With the potential loss of African-American incumbents on the city’s two primary governing bodies, the organization stepped into the fight. There were cries of disenfranchisement, claims of political payback and public pronouncements of dire consequences to be expected on the heels of such a change.

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But the case the NAACP tried to make that the decision was rooted in racial bigotry was always a hard one to sustain. Under objective scrutiny, it just could not hold up. First, anyone looking at the entire situation would be struck by the fact that a white School Board member, the Sleepy Hole Borough’s Diane Foster, also would lose her seat under the proposal. Any effort to reduce the influence of black members of either the School Board or City Council would not benefit from also pulling the rug from under a white member.

Second — and here’s where NAACP leaders always figuratively stick their fingers in their ears — the new redistricting plan actually has a greater number of majority-black districts than the current plan. Assuming that people only vote for people of the same skin color (an assumption that was proved false with the election of Barack Obama as president on the strength of a significant percentage of white voters) that could mean greater black representation on the City Council than the three who currently hold seats.

It’s hard to argue that city leaders are trying to “purge” blacks from Suffolk’s governing bodies in the face of all that evidence, yet that’s exactly what the NAACP did. To believe there was some conspiracy to eliminate Suffolk’s black representatives from office required one further to believe Suffolk’s black city manager and two black council members were all complicit in it.

Apparently, the Justice Department just couldn’t conjure the imagination it would have taken to believe all that the NAACP suggested was true, though it’s important to note that the federal government characteristically reserves the right to change its mind and press a lawsuit against the city, therefore hedging its bets all around. It’s also important to note that this Justice Department is led by a black man, Eric Holder, who works for a black president, Obama, and that both men have vowed to fight what they characterize as widespread assaults on African-American suffrage in recent years.

It’s time for the local NAACP leaders to move past this local issue. It has been fairly adjudicated by Justice Department officials, and Suffolk should not continue to suffer from the divisiveness of foul and baseless charges of racism within its administration or its City Council.