A Demographic Shift, But Not An Earthquake. [Corrected]

Colby Hamilton ’s “Can Brooklyn’s historical black Congressional district survive?” is an interesting article, and it’s ultimate point—that the days of Brooklyn hosting two black majority Congressional Districts are probably numbered in the long run, if not in the short term—is surely a sound one.     

This is going to be a widely read and cited article—at least among Brooklyn political observers.

Which is why it needs a cold slap in the face before it is publicly adopted as received and conventional wisdom.  

This is because some of the “facts” quoted within are grossly misleading.  

HAMILTON:  After the 1990 census, the basic lines the 11th District has today were drawn. At the time, the district was 74 percent black. It was during that decade that the city began a transformation that has led to the changes being felt today…According to the 2000 census, 71 percent of the district identified itself as black or African American. Ten years later that number had dropped to 58 percent—a 16 point slide over two decades.”


While a district somewhat resembling the current district was drawn in 1992, the lines were redrawn again after the 2002 census.  

I have no reason to dispute that the district, as it existed in the 1992 reapportionment dropped from 74% black to 71% black over the next ten years.

But, while some of the population trends Hamilton talks about are indeed taking place, the largest factor in the growth of the district’s white population was not gentrification, it was the 2002 reapportionment.

As in the reapportionment currently taking place, New York State had lost seats, and every Congressional District which survived had to grow, even if it had not lost population.  In order to preserve the 10th and 11th CDs as black majority, they both had to be expanded into other territory, much of it white majority—some of it heavily so.

According to Hamilton, in 1990, the 11th CD had a black majority of 71%. What Hamilton didn’t mention are the statistics which can easily be obtained from the webstite of the New York State Legislative Taskforce on Demographic Research and Reapportionment  (LATFOR).

According to LATFOR, in the aftermath of the 2002 reapportionment, the 11th went from 71% black to  approximately 58% black.  

This was not because of a rapid population drop (there would have been no census to count it), it was solely because the lines had changed.

According to the 2002 census, the black percentage of the 11th CD is now 53%.

In other words, in the last decade, the amount of the district’s drop in black population attributable to changing demographics rather than to changing lines is not 13%, it is 5%.

Since the lines must change, and the 10th and 11th (and Greg Meeks’ 6th) must grow, increasing the black proportion of the district’s population while preserving existing black districts is virtually impossible, and this number will probably drop even further.

Further, given the existing trends (Brooklyn’s black population dropped in the last decade from 36% of the Borough’s population down to 33%), and the likely future growth  in the size of Congressional Districts, Hamilton’s conclusion that this is likely the last time Brooklyn will be home to two black majority Congressional Districts is probably correct.

And, even using the real numbers, there is at least some reason to believe that no matter how both these districts are drawn, they won’t both be represented by blacks in 2022.

But the drastic and rapid drop in black population implied in Hamilton’s article is of the sort that will draw too many people to draw too many conclusions which are far from true. 

Such conclusion could impact political, public policy and development decisions. Pardon me for feeling that it is better for such decisions to be made on the basis of facts, rather than bad reporting.

There is a drop in the 11th’s black population, and it probably augers a trend, but the 11th Congressional District is not poised to see the rapid overnight shift in population (like the one which took place in the opposite direction in Canarsie in the early 1990s) implied in Hamilton’s article.

There are some constituencies, partially in the 11th, like Tish James’ 35th Councilmanic and Hakeem Jeffries 57th AD, where such shifts may well occur, and other place (like parts of Flatbush, Prospect-Lefferts Garden and Crown Heights) where changes are occurring at smaller but significant rates, but overall, all the black majority Council and Assembly seats, including the 35th and 57th could all be saved by moving the mass of them a bit to the South and East, and abandoning some parts (but not all) of Prospect Heights and Greater Fort Greene (plus some strategic tweaks all over the map) .

Of course, some white politicians (Helen Weinstein and Alan Maisel most come to mind) will find this shock therapy quite uncomfortable, and every incumbent, regardless of color, will have to work a bit harder, at least in the short run. But it can be done if the will is there.  

In the end, I agree with Hamilton: VRA and the tools in the mapmaker’s bag of tricks can save the 10th and 11th for the time being, but the VRA and the mapmakers cannot put in what God left out.

But, like the devil, God is in the details. And in the details, Hamilton’s article is misleading to a point of verging upon gross exaggeration.  

[As Erik engquist points out in the comments, some of the stats orginally cited were wrong--this is mostly as a result of Hamilton's erroneous citation of 58% as the 11th's current black population leading my eye to the wrong line of figures on the LATFOR site, and then my compounding the error. This has now been corrected, and other text has been mildly altered to reflect that correction's implications. Further response to Hamilton and Engquist's comments will appear in a later column].