Black people represent 6.5 percent of Massachusetts’ population, but hold zero of the state Senate’s 40 seats.
With new data from the 2020 US Census now in hand, advocates are looking to this year’s redistricting cycle to change that, pushing for new state Senate maps that will empower Boston’s Black communities to elect candidates of color who will fight for their needs. Several dozen people gathered on a steamy Saturday morning in Roxbury’s Malcolm X. Park for a “community redistricting hearing,” where they spoke to the state lawmakers who will redraw Massachusetts’ legislative maps about the needs of their neighborhoods and the importance of representation.
“Nothing is more critical during this redistricting process than returning an African-American to the Senate in Boston,” Kevin Peterson, founder of the New Democracy Coalition, which organized the event, said in a recent interview with the Globe.
Currently, Boston is carved up into several Senate districts, with much of the city’s Black population residing in the districts held by state Senator Sonia Chang-Dίaz of Jamaica Plain and state Senator Nick Collins of South Boston. Peterson said the current map “dissipates the political and civic power of the Black community.” The once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle that follows every federal census offers the opportunity to fix it, he said.
“This lack of representation has resulted in death for us,” said former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who until 2009 represented many of Boston’s Black neighborhoods in the Senate, pointing to the disparate health impacts of COVID-19. Speaking on Saturday morning over the “thwaps” of tennis balls on a nearby court and the traffic on Martin Luther King Boulevard, Wilkerson called for a Senate district that will unite Boston’s Black neighborhoods so they can come together to elect a representative who will better advocate for their needs on Beacon Hill.
Every 10 years, Massachusetts lawmakers use new Census data to balance the size of Congressional and legislative districts, redrawing the lines so that politicians represent roughly equal numbers of people. The process is a politically fraught one, in which incumbents fight for their own districts to maintain certain neighborhoods or precincts they expect to keep them in their seats. This year, expected vacancies in the state Senate — Chang-Dίaz is running for governor, Senator Joseph Boncore of Winthrop is a leading candidate to lead the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and several other incumbents are rumored to be mulling exits to run for higher office — will make drawing new Senate maps a slightly easier task.
“Redistricting is about power,” said Carroy Ferguson, a University of Massachusetts Boston professor at the Saturday morning gathering. “Mapmakers who are in positions to make decisions about how districts will be shaped hold the keys to whether or not the voices of Black communities, communities of color, and communities of interest will be enhanced or suppressed.”
Black Bostonians made up 19.1 percent of the city’s population in 2020, down from 22.4 percent in 2010 and 23.8 percent in 2000. That decrease comes as the city is led by its first Black mayor, Kim Janey, who assumed the role in an acting capacity earlier this year and is running in this fall’s election to keep the job.
Peterson said he was “deeply concerned” those figures represented an undercount of Boston’s Black population and was mulling ways to challenge the data.
State lawmakers involved in the process have asked community members and advocates alike to submit feedback and even proposed maps, all of which they plan to consider in the next few months as the redistricting process begins in earnest. State Senator William Brownsberger of Belmont and state Representative Michael J. Moran of Brighton, the two Democrats leading this year’s process, both attended Saturday’s event.
Peterson and members of the New Democracy Coalition have drafted a proposed map of the Boston area that would create at least one majority-Black district encompassing some of Roxbury, Dorchester, Roslindale, Hyde Park, and Mattapan.
His map would also create two other Boston-area Senate districts — one stretching south and east into the Seaport and parts of Dorchester, and another extending into Mission Hill toward the Allston area — that would give Black voters significant influence, he said.
As the state’s population continues to diversify, lawmakers are under increasing pressure to draw districts where communities of color have the voting influence to elect candidates of their choice. In 2011, state lawmakers added a dozen new majority-minority seats to Massachusetts’ congressional and legislative maps, but a decade later, most of those new seats are held by white lawmakers. Politicians and experts say diversifying Beacon Hill must start, but cannot end, with fair maps.
Advocacy around redistricting in Boston has also drawn the attention of Representative Ayanna Pressley. The Boston Democrat said in a brief interview Saturday at her new district office in Hyde Park that she supports state lawmakers’ efforts to draw majority-minority districts, including the creation of a majority-Black state Senate district in Boston.
It’s important “not so we can pat ourselves on the back about how progressive we are, or how far we’ve come,” she said. “The point is that when you have a diversity of perspective, opinion, and thought around the table, it directly shapes and shifts the way policies are written.”
Massachusetts has a checkered history with redistricting.
As recently as 2004, federal judges struck down parts of Massachusetts’ legislative maps, finding they illegally diluted the power of Black Boston voters by packing them into one State House district. The court found that lawmakers had drawn boundaries that “sacrificed racial fairness . . . on the altar of incumbency protection.”
The debacle forced Beacon Hill to redraw the maps, cost $2 million in legal fees, and ultimately brought down House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice after he lied under oath about his role in redistricting.
And the demand for a majority-Black seat in the state Senate is not a new one.
In 1973, with Boston’s roughly 106,000 Black residents carved up into five state Senate districts, the state House’s Black Caucus and a few white allies pushed for a Senate district where Black communities could come together with a more decisive voice.
Beset with tension among incumbents who feared a new map would threaten their seats, the Senate refused to draw a majority-Black district until forced to by a gubernatorial veto. In 1975, after it was drawn, the district elected Bill Owens as the Senate’s first Black member. But in 2001, the lines changed, splintering much of Boston’s Black population into another district.
Peterson visited Owens last week in a nursing home, he said, where Owens told him to “restore the seat that was created for this community.”
Correspondent Ivy Scott contributed to this report.