When I think about redistricting, the process in which we divvy up council districts based on population changes, I recall a Buddhist teaching warning against focusing on the finger when pointing at the moon. The late monk Thich Nhat Hanh, explained it as, “A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The finger is needed to know where to look for the moon, but if you mistake the finger for the moon itself, you will never know the real moon.”
This wisdom parallels a principle called the double bottom line. This principle tells public servants that balanced numbers on the first bottom line are not enough. What public servants are deciding, doing, and changing plays out on a second bottom line that must also be balanced: real impacts on real people.
In this year’s redistricting, we are observing what happens when public servants think too much about the first bottom line and mistake it for the second, or what happens when they mistake their finger for the moon.
For example, the redistricting advisory committee released a plan that would effectively split up the neighborhoods and neighborhood associations for Monticello Park, Jefferson, Woodlawn, and Greater Harmony Hills. There’s no confusion about it: balanced numbers drew these socially unbalanced lines, and the committee members were eager to explain why.
When my neighbors and I participated in redistricting meetings to talk about these plans, we were met by committee members who spoke in statistical terms —percentages, tracts, populations, blocks and data. When we expressed concerns about plans that would split neighborhoods and neighborhood associations into different council districts, the attorneys for the committee restated the numerical requirements of the Voting Rights Act. When we asked for the committee to preserve our community voice in local government, the committee members showed us a spreadsheet of demographics. And when we tried to contribute ideas for a win-win solution, committee members responded, “put away the pitchforks,” and “everyone will not be happy,” because redistricting is a “zero-sum game.”
Communicating with the committee seemed hopeless. This went on until a neighbor spoke up and reminded the committee, the attorneys, and the neighbors of the second bottom line: we are people.
We’re talking about San Antonio people, puro people. We’re residents, business owners, workers, retirees, students, families and veterans. We are talking about beloved communities that cannot be explained by individual constituencies or mere census data. To draw district boundaries through these bonds is to sacrifice hard-built communities for the sake of numerical notions.
Our entire way of government was built on the second bottom line. We live in a democracy and not a datacracy. The constitution begins, “We the people,” and not, “We the demographics.” When Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, he said, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and not, “government of the ArcGIS software, by the statisticians, for the census tracts.” In the three Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justices prior to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearing, the phrases “real people” and “real lives” were said some 50 times, and the word “people” was uttered 2,000 more.
Sure, the Voting Rights Act compels us to comply with numbers, but the Voting Rights Act was not written to separate individual people with math. Rather, it was enacted so that we could guarantee positive social impacts on whole communities. The American philosopher John Dewey said it best:
We cannot set up, out of our heads, something we regard as an ideal society. We must base our conception upon societies that actually exist, in order to have any assurance that our ideal is a practicable one.
Census data by itself is incapable of revealing the communities that actually exist. In the fullness of time, we could calculate the numbers a thousand different ways and still not point at the right social impact. However, if we seek to first understand the people, and we seek to understand the community boundaries that are already in place, then we just might find the numbers that point at reality.
This means that the redistricting advisory committee needs to prioritize people before numbers. They could do this by having more focus groups and fewer meetings; more work sessions and fewer presentations; and more conversations and fewer surveys. They could go out into the public, physically walk along the boundaries of neighborhoods, and listen to the people who live in the margins. This is not asking for too much. It’s asking for what is right. After all, the committee’s recommendations to City Hall will have real impacts on our real lives.