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OPINION: Divide Without Conquering

OPINION: In just a few weeks, the Board of Supervisors will vote on its new redistricting lines.
Antonio Lopez.

In just a few weeks, the Board of Supervisors will vote on its new redistricting lines. And since both the country and county where I spent my entire life have had a troubled history of putting people of color on maps, I want to make clear what is at stake.

We are here to reverse decades of redlining and racially restrictive covenants, of discriminatory policies from housing to voting that systematically marginalized cities up and down this County--from East Palo Alto to South San Francisco.

We are here because hundreds of thousands of working-class residents are too tired and overworked to make public comment on a school night.

I am here because in 2021, procedural concessions of an advisory committee aside, five white people will ultimately decide the terms and conditions through which our community, predominately of color and low-income, vie for its seat at the table.

The previous statement is not meant to be inflammatory. On the contrary, it is meant to be open as inequality in the era of COVID.

As a freshman councilman for East Palo Alto, I’ve been politically reared in a once-in-a-century pandemic, which means I have seen inequality in its most naked form. I door-knocked on apartment units only to find them hollowed out of their families. I saw lines blocks-long of pedestrians of all ages hauling strollers and shopping carts to receive a bounty of block cheese.

But it also means that every day I saw the best of humanity. Throughout these twelve months, I’ve seen people dressed in all colors of Patagonia jackets--folks who likely never questioned when their next meal was--volunteer their Friday nights to hand my constituents a carton of milk. From food banks to outreach for vaccine and housing assistance, I saw the White and well-to-do invest their time and resources for my city.

Despite a lifetime of seeing a city slighted and snubbed, I do not doubt the capacity for us to be better than our forefathers. I do not doubt our collective ability to bridge resources so that no longer will a zip-code limit a child’s future.

But individual investment is not enough. If communities like mine are to prosper in an ever-gentrifying county, we need cities to step up, to understand that while they’ve enjoyed centuries of political representation, we are just beginning to make our voices heard.

As iterated in Supervisorial District Lines Advisory Commission’s meetings, it is inevitable that some cities will be divided in the new map, which has caused a bit of a dilemma among commissioners. Mindful of being as inclusive as possible, the commissioners are reluctant to decide which cities to divide. That is why I propose that the wealthy cities in the County volunteer to have their areas cut in half by the new proposed boundaries. The reasoning is very simple: they have less to lose.

Since its enshrinement in European colonialism, it has been an instrument of white supremacy to divide marginalized into territories small enough so that those populations in each cannot wield enough influence in the larger affairs of the day. In our American context, this pervasive practice has reared its head up until the immediate present day, in the form of racial gerrymandering. And in the Bay Area, though the manifestations were and are more subtle, racism abounds. In the County of San Mateo, the fourth-wealthiest in the nation, the politics of incorporation has left a racialized divide, so that in the year 2021, issues like unpaved roads, clean water exist side by side with multibillion-dollar corporations. Those cities that were incorporated early in the 20th century have benefitted from a stability that together with small populations, single-family zoning, streamlined permits and changing buyer demographics, catapulted them to appear astonishing wealth. It is a stability that by the advent of the tech boom, buyers brought their families and resources to those communities instead of ours.

For many, such a proposal might still seem ridiculous, perhaps cause ire. Who is this young man to tell us what to do, to in effect dictate another city’s political future?

The reality is that historically, and like many of my Black and Brown and unincorporated neighbors, my city’s political future was dictated for decades. The reality is my city was divided decades before it was even a city, when the Bayshore Freeway Expansion without our approval, a freeway that for the convenience of outside commuters, displaced fifty-plus businesses in a time where we were just getting our economic footing.

We do not lack the knowledge of what we must do, but rather the political courage to act upon its natural consequences. Whether from Hillsborough or the Coastside, Atherton or North Fair Oaks, we as residents of this county must set aside our personal hesitations and understand our role in history. To redraw maps with fault lines on their acres will not alter a quality of life cemented by centuries of intergenerational power. On the contrary, to reorient the redistricting process in favor of our Black and Brown low-income communities is not reverse prejudice, but a vindication of an unjust past.

Only through this strategic division, we will be united.

I leave readers with this final consideration. Earlier this week I saw recirculating on my Facebook a picture of Barbara Mouton, the City of East Palo Alto’s first mayor. She donned the front cover of the 1983 issue of the Palo Alto Weekly. The headline read, “The Challenge Ahead: Economic Stability for the new East Palo Alto.” I am here to tell you that it has been thirty-eight years—eleven years longer than I’ve been on this earth—and we as a city are just beginning to see significant economic investments come to our city. 38 years—think about how long that is. A whole generation of youth who went through our schools and slipped through the cracks of our revenue shortfalls, of small businesses that set up shop and couldn’t afford operations, of renters and homeowners that sought economic relief in a rapidly expensive Bay Area.

Now is the opportunity for our affluent neighbors to volunteer what is arguably the most precious and frightening resource, power itself. I am not saying it is an easy choice to cede one’s position. I am simply saying it is a choice, freely made under no pressure, to cede power. We never had such a luxury.

And to the supervisors of this county, two maps have been recommended and presented before you: the Unity Map and the Espinoza Map. Spearheaded by Thrive Alliance, the Unity Map is the culmination of consultation and collaboration with over a dozen nonprofits spanning Nuestra Casa here in East Palo Alto, to south city’s Rise. The Espinoza Map, and with all due respect to its principal author, further marginalizes East Palo Alto and lumps us with the coast side, a region which if you ask most folks in EPA, North Fair Oaks, and Belle Haven, will tell you they have little to no relation. 

It is my humble hope that a week from now when the board makes its final decision, I look inside to see a map drawn with me in it, that will help my community, a generation from disenfranchisement and poverty, continue its lifelong mission to determine its own destiny.

Antonio Lopez is a doctoral candidate at Stanford and the author of the poetry collection, Gentefication. He is a council member for the City of East Palo Alto.

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