Dispatches From Suburbia: Who Gets to Be in Our Community?
This is part of a series on suburban community and infrastructure. For the previous installment, please click here.
In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a margin of 8-0 on Evenwel v. Abbott, a case that at its surface pertained to the particulars of redistricting in Texas. The question was whether legislative districts were obligated to be drawn based on the population of voting-eligible citizens, or could be drawn instead on the basis of all residents of an area. The plaintiffs pointed out that when districts were drawn on total population, voters in some areas might potentially be outnumbered by non-voters. This was deemed to be unfair to voters, who were assumed to be more legitimate members of the community. The Supreme Court ruled against Evenwel, asserting that districts could be drawn to take into account the total population. By implication, this meant that an elected official would be the representative of everyone in their district, not just those who were citizens, non-felons, over the age of 18, or registered voters.
I cheered the news of this decision. I’ve lived in the United States most of my adult life, but because of the vicissitudes of the US immigration system, I only became a citizen earlier this year.
I’ve always been outspoken about my political beliefs. But I also grew up in an English-speaking democratic country and, though I’m not white, I’m middle-class and university-educated. I’m likely to be the exception. Political engagement when you’re not a citizen is precarious. Non-citizens are never sure about which parts of the First Amendment really apply. This country has you at its sufferance, and you never quite forget that.
Another case on the current Supreme Court docket, Maslenjak v. United States, looks at whether citizenship can be revoked after the fact due to discovery of false statements made during the immigration and naturalization process—perhaps you forgot the date of your last traffic ticket, or lied about being in a youth group in another country decades ago. It’s unlikely that the Court will rule against the plaintiff; however, the fact that loss of citizenship is even being debated is chilling.
We are living in a time of real, tangible threats to those deemed to be outsiders. Municipalities that are perceived to be lax on immigration enforcement may have their funding threatened and rumors are rampant of immigration raids of buses and outside houses of worship. Mosques and temples are being vandalized. For those of us from certain groups, particularly those who might look to be Muslim or Mexican, the news isn’t just a political drama but a roadmap for our day-to-day reality. When the discourse on neighborhood listservs seems inordinately concerned with suspicious activity and belonging—and you’re aware that you’re more than likely to be profiled on the wrong side of “see something say something”—you may be less likely to get involved in your community at all.
The ground floor for community engagement for many of us is our local civic association. I wanted to get involved, so I went knocking on doors in my predominantly white, single-family-home subdivision. Many people don’t answer to the first knock. I was leaning over to place a flyer within a screen door when the door flung open. A younger white man gave me an accusing look. I became suddenly aware of my racial difference and quickly informed him that I lived down the street, and was representing the civic association. He told me he was already a member and closed the door. I told myself that, most likely, he was just busy and I’d interrupted him, but couldn’t help but feel that I was intruding in more than one way.
Civic associations act not only as venues through which to connect with neighbors but often also as vehicles for political organization. Historically, many civic associations in neighborhoods of single-family homes were formed to protect the community from outside encroachment. In these more enlightened days, outside encroachment usually refers to transit development or multi-family or rental housing. The dog whistles aren’t so different, however, from the bad old days of restrictive covenants. When we say we care about our property values, we can’t help but make assumptions about the types of changes that would be likely to pull those down—and the types of people associated with those changes.
The civic association in my community is, of course, open to everyone. My neighborhood has a mix of residents of all races, religions, and immigration statuses. Still, the most active members of the association are mostly white and homeowners not renters, and do not include any recent immigrants. As I pointed out in my previous piece, we don’t all live in the same worlds. It’s hard to see the outside of the bubble from inside of it.
I initially wondered if the emphasis on dues and membership was off-putting, excluding those who don’t have the disposable income to spend on something that might be perceived as a mere social club. Most people likely don’t see civic involvement as something relevant to their lives.
I’ve also wondered if the problem isn’t something less easily remedied than waiving a membership fee. When the only people who are participating in local politics or activism are white and American-born, it may not be easy to believe that your participation would be truly welcome. You may worry that you may initially be welcomed in order to showcase diversity but dismissed if you express an opinion outside what was formerly acceptable. You may decide, then, to hunker within your own bubble too.
The other day, I noticed an older man, an immigrant from Central America who lives a few doors down, loading up his van with furniture. A bank had repossessed and auctioned his house and he and his wife had to vacate. They had lived in the same home for over a decade, growing a large vegetable garden and befriending other couples who lived nearby. I had told him about our civic association, but he had never become a member. It’s possible that we could have helped him with legal resources, or in other ways, but it’s not certain that we would have; this situation, common but invisible, had never been discussed in our meetings.
Our local organizations must make deliberate decisions as to whether we truly wish to represent our entire communities or just those individuals who are actively involved or are the most vocal. We must be honest with ourselves about our scope. The Supreme Court’s judgment on Evenwel v. Abbot does not mandate that civic representatives consider the needs of all residents in a given area. It allows district lines—virtual and actual—to be drawn to exclude those on the margins of society. Being vigilant about inclusivity is difficult; it’s easy to assume that people with a personal stake in an issue will make themselves heard and active outreach is not worth the effort. But this Supreme Court decision should inspire us to consider that we can make a different choice.
I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I believe that to do better, we will have to be bolder about meeting people where they are—at the bus stops, on the streets, in the parks and playgrounds—and communicating why our community organizations and civic involvement in general are relevant to their lives. We will need to respect that some individuals, due to immigration status, legal history, or other circumstances, may not feel comfortable giving out their names and may not be able to donate money or time. However, if we are to be democratic in our institutions and representative in our policy-making, we will need to think deeper and differently and be more empathetic to all of those who inhabit our community.
Sanjida Rangwala is a geneticist living in Silver Spring, MD with her husband and two cats. She is passionate about infrastructure and ways to make her community better. Follow her on Twitter @adijnas.