Whither 125th Street

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

It's been awhile since we talked about black folks ain't what they used to be. It feels like it's about that time. Here's the Times on congressional redistricting in Harlem. As it happens, the neighborhood has been carved up in such a way that black politicians will have to actually, like, compete:


In the decades since, the so-called Harlem seat has been held by only two men, Mr. Powell and the man who unseated him in 1970, Representative Charles B. Rangel, each of whom became among the most influential African-American voices in the nation's capital, representing a neighborhood known as a center of black arts and culture, scholarship and struggle. 

"Their lore was that they spoke for black America, they spoke for Harlem, and they spoke for the Harlems all over this country," said David A. Paterson, the former New York governor and a Harlem native. 

But as demographic change has altered the makeup of Upper Manhattan -- Harlem has become less black and neighborhoods around it more Hispanic -- black politicians are concerned that they might lose this prized pulpit. Under new boundaries imposed by a federal court as part of the reapportionment process every 10 years, the district has been extended into the Bronx, and more than half of its population is now Hispanic. In the Democratic primary, 

Mr. Rangel faces challenges from a Dominican-born state legislator, Senator Adriano Espaillat, who argues that it is time for his community to be represented in Congress, as well as from two African-American candidates: Clyde Williams, the former national political director for the Democratic National Committee, and Joyce Johnson, a former local Democratic district leader. 

Mr. Rangel, 81, is well known and has organizational and fund-raising advantages heading into what is expected to be a low-turnout June 26 primary -- and the primary will probably be decisive in this overwhelmingly Democratic district. But the race is likely to be tough, not only because of changing demographics and boundaries, but also because Mr. Rangel has faced ethics charges and health problems. And, whoever wins this year, some black civic leaders worry that a black candidate would not be a lock to win the seat whenever Mr. Rangel leaves office.

The new "Harlem" district is now Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Bronx. The district is now majority Latino. Saying that, in New York, has a particular meaning. It's very different than if you were talking Miami or L.A.  Still it still has real meaning and no longer assures Harlem will be represented by "black" politician. I put that in scare-quotes because Rangel, himself,  is both black and Puerto-Rican.

With that said, the notion that"black interests" are always best served by black politicians really needs to be interrogated. This is not 1972. Moreover as Jamelle Bouie has pointed out, part (part!) of the reason we have so few black governors and senators, is African-Americans tend to come from heavily black districts. But we we've had enough black politicians elected with support beyond the black community, that there's no real reason to believe this is the only way.

A politician who says he can only win by getting the votes of their own ethnicity is not professing loyalty, they are professing weakness. With due respect to David Paterson, it's been a long time since the "Harlem seat" spoke for black America. I don't know that it ever did.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/whither-125th-street/256222/