Imani Oakley

By IMANI OAKLEY
Special to Montclair Local

The future of our town’s political representation is being negotiated behind closed doors, and what’s been revealed has not been promising. As recently reported by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report and Matt Friedman of Politico, some Democrats are mulling over whether to combine Montclair into the 11th Congressional District instead of keeping the current division of Upper Montclair in the 11th and Lower Montclair in the 10th. 

Let me be crystal clear: any plan to bring Montclair entirely into the 11th district is rooted in racist attitudes towards Black voters and will harm the political power of the Black community. 

Currently, Montclair is divided between two congressional districts. Upper Montclair, which is whiter and more affluent, is in the whiter 11th district, while the rest — which we might call Lower Montclair — home to the town’s historically Black neighborhoods, is part of the historically majority Black 10th Congressional District.

Democratic party functionaries suggest that with a new redistricting cycle, Lower Montclair should be cut out of the 10th and joined to the 11th. They hope that the neighborhood’s Democratic votes can help make that district bluer for the 2022 election. Some proponents worry that U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, in the 11th District, needs the help, while other cynical actors believe that a unified Montclair would give them additional power behind the scenes in the 11th District.

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It is very telling that neither group supports this redistricting plan because they believe it will improve representation for the South End and Fourth Ward of Montclair. 

The truth is that a unified Montclair inside the 11th District would not improve representation, and the Democratic establishment knows this. Instead, combining Montclair — with all of its diversity — into the overwhelmingly white 11th District would only hurt Black and Brown voters here. But New Jersey’s political machine doesn’t care. 

Congressional districts are meant to group communities of interest, and in reality, the interests of Upper and Lower Montclair are very different. Take, for example, just two data points: median household income and housing. In Upper Montclair, the median household income is $205,735, while in Lower Montclair, it’s $108,708, according to inflation-adjusted estimates by the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2019 (the most recent figures available). When it comes to housing, about 80% of households in Upper Montclair own their homes, while in Lower Montclair, that number is roughly half, also according to 2019 ACS estimates. 

The racial makeup of the two areas is similarly different. Upper Montclair is 83% white, while Lower Montclair is split roughly evenly between white and non-white populations, according to the 2019 ACS. And more specifically, the overwhelming majority of Montclair’s Black residents live in the lower half.

Essentially — and as the result of a myriad of historical factors, including housing injustice and systemic racism — Upper Montclair is a wealthier, whiter community of homeowners while Lower Montclair is a more diverse, poorer community of renters. It’s clear to anyone who even takes a second to visit these areas that the problems they face and the interests they have are very different. They don’t belong in the same district.If Lower Montclair is separated from other Black and Brown communities in the 10th and haphazardly glued onto the 11th, Black political power in Montclair will evaporate. Black and Brown voters will go from a majority in the 10th to a small minority in the 11th. Their votes and interests will become negligible, and the self-determination that local civil rights leaders have fought so hard for will be lost. One must only look at the current makeup of the Congressional Black Caucus to understand how this would happen. 

Of the 57 Black representatives, only a quarter come from districts with a white majority, the 2019 ACS data shows. Why? Because white voters still overwhelmingly tend to vote against Black candidates. Separating Black populations only dilutes their electoral power and makes it harder for them to have a representative from their community. 

On top of this plan’s threat to Black congressional representation, this proposal is undergirded by the racist logic that Black communities are Democratic votes [and] should be used however the party decides. Local political machines are comfortable using Lower Montclair for its votes while offering no actual representation in return. That isn’t democracy. 

The only way that Lower Montclair maintains its political representation is if people — of all backgrounds — make their voices heard and tell the New Jersey Redistricting Commission to pursue alternative proposals. I encourage you to sign up to speak at the next redistricting meeting, join our petition to stop this proposal, linked from oakleyforcongress.com, and call your representatives to tell them to stand up for this marginalized community. 

Montclair resident Imani Oakley is running for Congress in New Jersey’s 10th District in the 2022 Democratic primary election. The seat — New Jersey’s only Black majority district — covers parts of Essex, Union and Hudson counties. The district is currently represented by Donald Payne Jr. (D).


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