The tricky racial politics of undoing gerrymandering in Florida

When a circuit court judge in Florida threw out the state's congressional map, ordering that it redraw the lines bounding two districts by the middle of this month, it seemed like a victory for opponents of gerrymandering. The decision from Judge Terry Lewis focused on the fact that the state's 5th and 10th districts were drawn both surreptitiously and in violation of a state law aimed at preventing districts designed specifically to help one party or the other.

In the wake of the decision -- and the imminent mandate that the 5th and 10th be reworked -- there's been a perhaps unexpected source of opposition to the move: the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a coalition of black legislators that includes among its members Rep. Corrine Brown, the Democrat who represents the 5th Congressional District. Last week, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), the chair of the group, wrote to Democratic leadership to protest the party's support for reworking the lines.

Here's how Florida's black population is distributed, with higher density areas in brighter colors. (The data is from the Census Bureau and shows data for Census tracts.) It's largely random, sweeping from the Northwest to Southeast.

And here's the overall racial composition of each of the state's congressional districts, with Brown's highlighted. It's remarkable: Three over 50 percent African American, two that are about a quarter black, and then everything else under 14 percent.

Why single out Brown's 5th district? Here's a map that isolates the 5th district, showing where there are pockets of black population. It starts outside Orlando, slides over to Sanford, northwest to Gainesville, east to Palatka, and then north to Jacksonville. In each place, more of the state's black population is added to the total.

For Brown, this is advantageous, keeping her district both heavily Democratic and a majority black. It creates an awkward map, and was clearly done with both of those goals in mind. But as the beneficiary of that effort, Brown isn't complaining.

What happens if the map is redrawn? Almost certainly one or more of those population centers will be removed from Brown's district, and almost certainly that will reduce the density of its black population. The court's goal is fair representation within the state of Florida. The CBC's goal, clearly, is a Congress that better represents what America looks like. The United States is 13 percent black; Congress is just over 10 percent black.

Moving black voters out of Brown's district doesn't mean that Brown won't win reelection this year, or in the future. But no politician ever likes to see his or her base of support weakened -- no matter how it was cobbled together.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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Philip Bump · August 5