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Untying the ‘white noose’ of Baltimore County | GUEST COMMENTARY

Senator Dolores Kelley speaks at a press conference to call on Baltimore County Council to start over with the proposed county redistricting plan, which would unlawfully dilute Black people’s votes, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. 10/12/21
Senator Dolores Kelley speaks at a press conference to call on Baltimore County Council to start over with the proposed county redistricting plan, which would unlawfully dilute Black people’s votes, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. 10/12/21 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County’s proposed redistricting map — which retains six majority-white districts and one majority-Black district, despite the county’s current population being nearly 50 percent nonwhite — arrives in the context of the county’s long history of racist segregation.

If accepted, it will lock in racial exclusion for yet another generation.

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Baltimore County was founded to exclude Black people from white neighborhoods. Just look at the map. Almost every other metro area across the nation is connected to the city that drives its culture and economy. Not majority-white Baltimore County, which has carefully drawn its strange contours around the cutout of majority-Black Baltimore City. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission famously called the county a “white noose” around the city it encases.

The County Council, which dictates the county’s housing, policing, and educational policies, holds that noose in its hands. For years, it has advocated for the concerns of the majority-white districts its members represent.

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In the 1970s, Baltimore County real estate agents were instructed to inform police if county homes were sold to African Americans. In 1980, when 10% of the county population was Black, every district represented by the Baltimore County Council was majority white. Twenty years later, when the county’s Black population doubled, every Baltimore County Council district remained majority white.

It was only after facing activist pressure in 2001 that the council created a single majority-Black district in the county, which elected the council’s sole Black member. Activist pressure similarly led to Baltimore County being sued over its racist housing policies in 2011, ultimately forcing the county to invest in affordable housing under federal authority.

But neither federal authority nor the sole councilman representing a majority-Black district could undo the council’s segregationist bias. The rest of the council — Democrats and Republicans alike — outvoted him on a bill that would end housing discrimination. Since that bill, the HOME Act, passed in 2019, the County Council has continued to protect white property owners at the expense of affordable housing. The spirit of the Jim-Crow-era housing covenants that banned Black people, and remained on the books in some county neighborhoods until just a few years ago, is alive and well.

Today, the County Council and its redistricting commission have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to loosen the white noose. Instead, they appear poised to tighten it.

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The council has so far accepted the redistricting commission’s proposal for new districts in which six out of seven are, once again, majority white. In recent interviews on WBAL and WMAR, County Council Chair Julian Jones Jr. suggested that it would be geographically impossible to do any better: The county’s nonwhite population is so dispersed across the county that it would be impractical to create more majority-Black districts. That’s not true. The NAACP and ACLU have created a map that does just that, with two majority-Black districts, one mixed-race district, and four majority-white districts. So have my fellow activists at Indivisible Towson.

Privately, the word is that County Council members prefer the currently proposed map. It’s no mystery why: It retains the partisan makeup of the council and protects incumbents facing re-election.

The council needs to reject this proposed map, direct the redistricting commission to generate a map compliant with the Voting Rights Act, and immediately schedule a series of public hearings to explain why. If not, they face expensive legal action from the NAACP and ACLU.

It’s true that untying the white noose may require the County Council to make some compromises. Districts that are racially balanced might alter the partisan makeup of the council, or threaten incumbents facing re-election. But guess what: The point of redistricting is to draw fair maps for voters, not to serve elected officials.

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Sonia Shah (www.soniashah.com) is an author, science journalist and activist who lives in Baltimore County.

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