Across the San Gabriel Mountains from Los Angeles, the city of Palmdale, Calif. is in the midst of a racial dispute. In this city of 152,750 — which served as the construction site for all five space shuttle orbiters — the city is currently being sued over claims of racial bias in city elections.
A majority-minority city, Palmdale is approximately 40 percent Latino and 20 percent African-American; however, in the whole of the city’s history, only one minority official has ever been elected. “Latinos and African Americans are locked out of the political system in the city of Palmdale,” said attorney Kevin Shenkman, who is representing plaintiff Juan Jauregui, a Palmdale resident.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and local Black activists have indicated that they will join the suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court and scheduled to go to trial in May.
The plaintiffs are claiming that the city’s at-large election system violates California’s 2001 Voting Rights Act. They argue that in a single precinct race, minority voters would be disenfranchised, and that district-by-district voting would better protect and represent minorities.
Palmdale’s city attorneys argue that the majority of all registered voters in the city are minorities. They argue that the Black and Latino populations are “numerically positioned” to elect the mayor and council members of their choice. “They simply had very little support from voters, and no drawing or gerrymandering of districts would have resulted in a district which would have elected them,” the attorneys offered.
In November 2001, Palmdale rejected district voting during a referendum vote. Latinos voted overwhelming for district voting, but the measure was defeated with a 66 percent White opposition vote. Shenkman acknowledges the lackluster voting records of minorities in the city as being the main culprit, but blames the system at large for this. Blacks and Latinos didn’t vote because they had “grown to understand that their vote doesn’t matter,” Shenkman said.
Palmdale and the surrounding Antelope Valley have been plagued with accusations of racism. In August 2011, the U.S. Justice Department started a civil rights probe into NAACP allegations that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies were systematically harassing and bullying Black and Latino residents of subsidized housing in the area.
According to an Aug. 10 article from The New York Times, the NAACP and other civil rights groups are suing various cities based on the claim that minorities are being singled out for crimes or housing rule violations and are being expelled from public housing at a higher rate than White residents. Seventeen percent of Los Angeles County’s Section 8 tenants live in Antelope Valley’s Lancaster and Palmdale, while only 4 percent of the county’s overall population lives in the valley.
Racial harassment from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies is not rare in the Antelope Valley. The Antelope Valley Times presented the story of Latisha Clayton, who was arrested twice — once on a misidentification from a police operation photo and once for arguing with a police officer — in 2010 and 2011 after offering support to a defendant in a local drug case.
In 2012, the Sheriff Department was sued by a group of Antelope Valley families for episodes of racially motivated abuse — including the death of two men, the assault of a third, the false detention of Clayton and the harassment of a fellow deputy.
Other cities in California have been successfully sued for violations of the Voting Rights Act. Most recently, Compton switched to district-by-district voting to accommodate Latino voters in response to a June court decision.
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