Screen shot of a race and ethnicity map of the Compton area from the New York Times' "Mapping America: Every City, Every Block" interactive project. Blue dots represent African Americans, yellow dots represent Latinos, red dots represent Asians and green dots represent whites. Each dot represents 25 people.
While the U.S. Census Bureau has yet to release new data on race and ethnicity, it's already clear that some of the states with the biggest population growth, and which will gain Congressional seats, also happen to be states where Latinos have come to represent a bigger chunk of the population in recent years. But does this necessarily translate into more political clout for Latinos? And as these population shifts take place, what shape do they take at the neighborhood level, culturally and politically?
An interesting case study is playing out in Compton, a working-class Los Angeles County city that was long predominantly African American (some may remember it as the Compton of N.W.A's 1988 hip hop classic Straight Outta Compton) but where Latinos now make up two-thirds of the population.
California's population gain in the past decade, including among Latinos, has been relatively minor compared with many other states. Still, a demographic shift has been felt throughout the past decade across a broad swath of Los Angeles County where African Americans were once the majority.
Compton, due east of South Los Angeles, is in the throes of a cultural and political struggle between its traditional residents and its newer ones, as both groups compete for political clout and limited resources in a community where the 2009 annual per-capita income was a little over $13,000.
- In December, three Latina residents sued the city under the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, claiming that Compton's at-large city council elections violated Latinos' civil rights by weakening their voting power. Though the city is now majority Latino, all four city council members and the mayor are African American. Since 2000, half a dozen Latino candidates have run for office and lost.
- Earlier this week, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied a request by the plaintiffs to delay Compton's city elections until a trial determined the outcome of the lawsuit. A primary election is set for April primary, with the general election in June.The idea of the lawsuit is to change the way the city votes, moving from the at-large system to district-restricted voting, which the lawsuit alleges would give Latino candidates a better chance as voters choose candidates within a district.
- At the same time, only 7 percent of Compton's voting-age population turned out for a 2009 primary election, according to the Los Angeles Times. Critics of the lawsuit have pointed to this and wondered whether that's the real problem, and how much of a factor is the inability of some Latino residents to vote.
What's happening in Compton has happened to one degree or other in neighboring communities, such as Lynwood. In a way, it may also exemplify how a growing Latino population doesn't necessarily translate into a political edge, at least not yet. As we pointed out earlier this week, the polling firm Latino Decisions recently delivered this analysis in relation to the census:
The difficulty for Latinos in the reapportionment and representation process is this: states will gain legislative representation due to surges in Latino population, yet millions contributing to the net population growth are not able to vote due to age or citizenship status.
One-third of all Latino American citizens are too young to vote, and another 12.8 million Latinos are not eligible due to citizenship status.
About a third of Compton's population is under 18, and close to a quarter are non-citizens. Still, some question whether better voter outreach among eligible Latino voters in the city could be enough to gain a council seat. One man posted this comment on KPCC's website after the Patt Morrison show recently featured a segment on the Compton lawsuit:
60% Latinos with only 7% voter participation shows me that the Latino community has not used all the avenues available before going the lawsuit route. Exhaust all that and then sue.