How Pennsylvania can lead the fight against structural racism in our elections

Salewa Ogunmefun, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Voice, advocates for more equitable elections through “Unity Maps.”

A close-up of a Pennsylvania congressional map.

A close-up of a Pennsylvania congressional map. (Office of Gov. Tom Wolf)

Our country has become more diverse than ever, and our electoral district maps need to reflect that.

The racial justice uprisings last summer have pushed people of all backgrounds to uproot white supremacy from our systems: from voting, to community safety, to schooling. We see statues of people who have perpetuated harm throughout our country’s history coming down, and now another pillar of white supremacy in our systems is ready to topple: gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the practice of intentionally drawing voting district lines in such a way that skews votes toward one party. Right now, states across the country are deciding on new district lines and they have a choice. Will they approach the redistricting process with racial justice at its core, or further the harm that gerrymandering has caused to Black, Latinx and AAPI communities across the country? The outcomes of these decisions will have a significant effect on our elections for the next ten years.

Gerrymandering is a lynchpin of structural racism. Political districts define who has representation and who those representatives are accountable to. For decades, politicians have used redistricting to advance their own partisan interests and ignore the interests of the communities they claim to serve — especially Black, Latinx and AAPI communities.

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Politicians have used the redistricting process to ensure their reelection rather than represent their communities. Injustice is intentionally ingrained in the current legislative maps, and that limits communities’ ability to create the changes they need, like police reform, affordable housing and economic justice.

In Pennsylvania, people of color make up nearly 30 percent of the total population, but as of 2018 its highest law-making body – the state Legislature – was almost 90 percent white. This echoes across the country. For example, in both Ohio and Michigan, people of color make up about 40% of their total population but less than 20% of their state legislatures. Maps across the country further systematize and solidify hundreds of years of structural racism.

In order to produce truly equitable elections, we need a simple, transparent process and to create unbiased maps. The process for redistricting can be simple: Ask people where their communities are and draw maps that reflect the interests of that community.  We are calling these maps “Unity Maps”, and we are urging redistricting commissions to consider these maps when drawing new district lines.

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In Pennsylvania, over 700 people from across the state have developed these maps and are handing them over to the state legislature. Black, Latinx, Asian American people in communities and states across the U.S. are standing in solidarity to call for a racially equitable redistricting process that puts people over politics so we can have more funding for our kids’ schools, an environment that isn’t hazardous to our health and affordable housing that works for all of us — not against us. No one can draw the boundaries of our world and our community better than we can.

We know that fair and equitable elections are possible, and it’s time for redistricting commissions to recognize they work for us–not their political party. We say: No more politics as usual and no more manipulating the system to intentionally shut out Black, Latinx and AAPI communities. With maps that center people, not politics, our collective power will be unstoppable in shaping our communities and country for health, safety and prosperity.

Salewa Ogunmefun (Courtesy of Salewa Ogunmefun)

Salewa Ogunmefun, Executive Director of PA Voice, is a Nigerian-American social justice strategist with a passion for building political power grounded in collective liberation. She has over a decade of experience designing, developing, and leading electoral campaigns and field programs in 15+ states and in the District of Columbia.

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