For Hispanics, Numbers Are the Key to Power

The fastest-growing group lags in representation—but not for long

The Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side is located at the intersection of population growth and political frustration. The old Irish and Polish meatpacking center that inspired poet Carl Sandburg to dub Chicago the “hog butcher for the world” is now 80 percent Hispanic. Yet Hispanics have little political power there, thanks in part to creatively drawn legislative districts that have the effect of keeping them a voting minority. The four-square-mile community is represented by five city council members, three members of Congress, three state house members, and two state senators. Of those politicians, only five are Hispanic, diluting the political clout of the fastest-growing population in the nation.

“Do the math,” says Chicago Alderman Ricardo Muñoz, who argues that there is “20 years of pent-up growth” in the Hispanic community. For decades, he says, political leaders have used Hispanic neighborhoods as “backfill”—dividing them up to preserve black and white majority districts. Muñoz believes Hispanics won’t tolerate such tactics much longer, now that they have grown in number and affluence. They surpassed blacks as the nation’s largest minority in the 2010 U.S. Census and increased four times faster than the total population.

In Chicago, blacks still make up the largest segment of the city’s population, with 32.4 percent, but their numbers are shrinking. Hispanics represent 29 percent of the city’s population and are steadily expanding. The population shift is part of a nationwide phenomenon that has seen large numbers of blacks moving out of cities and into suburbs, or leaving Northern cities for Southern states in a reversal of the Great Migration of the 20th century. William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says black flight has accelerated from Chicago, New York, and Detroit—three destination cities of the Great Migration. “There’s a national trend of black suburbanization, a new generation of African Americans who both have more opportunity and don’t see their future living in cities, like their parents and grandparents,” he says.

The dispersal of the black population may dilute traditional voting clusters that gave rise to black political power in many cities, Frey says. In 1990, blacks were the largest minority group in 68 of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. That dropped to 59 in 2000 and 54 in 2010. “As blacks become more a part of the mainstream of American voters, not only geographically but economically, those kinds of older blocs will be melted down,” notes Frey.

That hasn’t necessarily translated into increased political clout for Hispanics, many of whom live in neighborhoods that have been carved up after each census. The major commercial strips in Back of the Yards are lined with Hispanic-owned businesses, yet the neighborhood is represented by three congressmen: one black, one white, and one Hispanic. Only one of the five aldermen who represent various parts of the neighborhood is Hispanic.

“It’s very confusing for people because they don’t know who to go to,” says Jesse Iniguez, executive director of the United Southwest Chamber of Commerce. At Paulina and 45th Streets, three of the four corners are in separate city wards, and the border of a fourth ward is two blocks away. “Nobody stands up for Back of the Yards,” Iniguez says.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (Maldef) is expected to challenge the legislative redistricting map that the Illinois General Assembly drew up in May. Once again, the group says, downstate politicians have underrepresented Hispanics by three to five seats on the South Side of Chicago. The same can be said for Hispanic representation in legislatures in other states. An analysis by Bloomberg News shows that the number of majority Hispanic legislative districts fell from 69 in 2000 to 59 in 2010 despite Hispanics’ robust population growth. “In some ways this is the critical year in redistricting, because we know that a certain number of African American seats will likely change over the course of the next 10 years,” says Thomas Saenz, the advocacy group’s president and general counsel.

U.S. Representative Danny Davis (D-Ill.), who moved to Chicago in 1960 as part of the Great Migration, sees the rising power of the city’s Hispanic population and is reminded of Chicago’s black community a generation ago, before he says it became complacent. “African Americans stopped organizing,” Davis says. Representatives from Maldef and other Hispanic interest groups say they expect to spend a lot of time in court in the months to come, challenging the political maps and arguing for greater representation in the state legislature and in Washington. The census numbers alone make the case for more Hispanic seats, Muñoz says, repeating his favorite refrain: “Do the math.”


    The bottom line: Now the nation’s largest minority, Hispanics are taking aim at political machines still dominated by black and white pols.

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