Asian American disenfranchisement in the Bay Area was already bad. S.F. redistricting will make it worse

San Francisco is about to finalize new boundaries for supervisorial districts and Asian Americans need to pay attention.

Every 10 years, the city goes through a redistricting process to reflect any population shifts found in the decennial U.S. census. The process culminates in the Redistricting Task Force — the body charged with leading the process — creating a new map of the city that ensures each district has similar population sizes while preserving neighborhoods and communities as much as possible.

But the plan the task force voted to adopt over the weekend doesn’t do that. Rather, it threatens to dismantle decades of Asian American community organizing across the city.

For over 50 years, the Asian American community has worked tirelessly to ensure its voice is heard at the city level. Living in close-knit concentrated areas of San Francisco, activists galvanized and mobilized the community from within to assert its own agency and to participate in civic life. With time, that hard work paid off. By 2012, the city had elected 10 Asian American supervisors, including a board president, along with two Assembly members, a state senator and the city’s first Asian American mayor.

But the draft map — which must be finalized by Friday — dilutes the voting strength of Asian Americans by making key districts that have historically elected Asian Americans to the Board of Supervisors more white, more affluent and less diverse. In particular, the new boundaries for District One (the Richmond) decrease Asian American population by 2.11% while they increase the white population by 2.38% with the addition of the wealthy Sea Cliff neighborhood. In District Three (Chinatown), the new map drops the Asian American population by 2.13% and increases the white population by 1.88%. In District Seven (west of Twin Peaks), the Asian American population drops by 2.61% while the white population is boosted by 2.42%. While those shifts may seem insignificant, even small changes can affect the outcome of an election. District One Supervisor Connie Chan defeated opponent Marjan Philhour in 2020 by only 125 votes.

Decreasing the population of Asian Americans in these districts will make it more difficult to elect Asian Americans to the Board of Supervisors in the coming decade.

This is not the first time the redistricting process threatened Asian American political representation in San Francisco. Just a few months ago, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, the statewide body responsible for congressional, state Senate and Assembly redistricting, tried to create a majority white Assembly district that would have significantly decreased the voting power of Asian Americans by separating the growing immigrant and Asian communities in Visitacion Valley and Hunter’s Point from Chinatown, which would have remained in the proposed district. The outcry from the Asian American community was fast, loud and furious and fortunately the map was rightfully scrapped.

There are similar problems causing Asian American disenfranchisement in other parts of the Bay Area as well. In San Jose, for example, Asian Americans comprise 38% of the city’s population and are the largest growing ethnic population in the city but they currently have no representation on the city council. Moreover, no Asian Americans served on the city’s Redistricting Commission, the body responsible for approving San Jose’s council district map. Unsurprisingly, that city’s final district map diminished the voting power of Asian Americans and other communities of color as well.

Asian American political representation matters.

Under the leadership of Assembly Member Phil Ting and then-Assembly Member David Chiu, the Asian American community of San Francisco was able to secure millions of dollars to support schools, housing, health and social services for the city, including $166 million of state funding to address the rising number of hate incidents directed against Asians. However, term-limits will preclude Ting’s continued service and Chiu now serves as San Francisco’s City Attorney. In a few years, the city faces the very real prospect of having no Asian American representative from San Francisco in the state Legislature for the first time in years.

Given that Asian Americans make up about a third of the city’s population, such an outcome would be devastating to the community and undermine our city’s democratic ideals.

The California Supreme Court has recognized the importance of maintaining community cohesion by designating “communities of interest” as a redistricting factor. The court defines the term as a “contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests.” The court further requires that “the geographic integrity of any … local community of interest shall be respected in a manner that minimizes their division to the extent possible.”

The draft map fails to abide by the court’s mandate.

With only a few days left in the redistricting process, it might be tempting to resign ourselves to accepting the plan the task force voted to approve. But now is the moment that the Asian American community, as well as other minority communities being disenfranchised by the proposed map, must stand up and be heard.

The task force is scheduled to meet one final time Wednesday to finalize the plan. The Asian American community needs to be at that meeting to ensure its voice is heard. The fortunes of the next generation of emerging Asian American leaders depends on it.

David Lee is the executive director and Justin Ma is a student intern at the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.