Keep discussion going on drawing new maps

Beaufort and NAACP should continue work to determine whether a black-majority district makes sense.

newsroom@islandpacket.comMay 15, 2014 

The NAACP's argument for a black-majority Beaufort City Council district gained ground last week when it drew three alternatives on a map.

This is an important step, but it is only a first step.

Ultimately, voters will likely decide whether to stick with at-large elections for the mayor and all four City Council members, or adopt districting to determine council seats.

But first things first. Now is time for unbiased fact-gathering that should inform people's opinions and decisions.

For assistance, the city and the NAACP should seek help from demographer Bobby Bowers of the S.C. Office of Research and Statistics, who has been doing this sort of thing for a living for many years. Bowers and his office could lend insight into the plans that the NAACP put forward -- for instance, is there an arrangement of districts that could hold for a while, or will demographic shifts, development, annexations or other factors mean political boundaries will have to be erased and redrawn often.

Whatever the answer to such questions and whatever the ultimate decision, it is encouraging that this dialogue is taking place. City officials initially seemed too dismissive of the idea, which is being championed by Darryl Murphy of the Burton-Dale-Beaufort NAACP branch, with the national NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund assisting.

"Our concern is having representation, and we feel the maps are a strong effort that we've made to try to make sure everything is inclusive," Murphy said.

The last two black council members were Fred Washington Jr., who served from 1979 to 1993, and Alice Wright, who served from 1982 to 1987.

Whether a majority black district can be crafted without lumping others of dissimilar interests into heavily gerrymandered districts is subject to legitimate debate. For that matter, so is the assertion that districting would lead to the election of a black council member.

At first glance, the NAACP's maps do not appear any more egregious than efforts elsewhere to ensure minority representation by similar means. However, it is worth noting that the largest black majority it could create is 53.97 percent -- perhaps not large enough to ensure that an African-American sits on council.

Of course, not all will accept that a goal so overtly motivated by race is appropriate. And others will argue that a racially-diverse district will ensure that African-American interests are taken into account by council -- even if the elected representative is not black

These can be constructive debates, but more facts must be known before they are engaged.

And when they are, the entire public must have a voice -- not just city officials with vested interests or a group representing special interests.

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