For seven decades, two African-American politicians—first Adam Clayton Powell Jr., then Charles Rangel—have represented Harlem in Congress, symbolizing the New York City neighborhood’s status as the de facto capital of black America.
Now, redistricting under way by the state legislature combined with a fast-rising Hispanic population are threatening to overturn that history. There are more Hispanics than blacks in Mr. Rangel’s district, raising the prospect that Harlem’s roughly 200,000 African-Americans will lose their dominant role in choosing the district’s member of Congress.
Similar issues are emerging in several areas around the country, including Southern California, where the growing Hispanic population poses a challenge to three black-held seats.
“It’s definitely becoming harder across the country to create as many majority African-American districts as were created in the 1990s and 2000s, and if you really can’t create a majority African-American district based on Harlem anymore, that’s pretty dramatic,” said Richard Pildes, a New York University professor whose writing on district lines has been cited by the Supreme Court.
Sharpening the reversal of fortunes is the role of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Originally designed to end antiblack discrimination at the polls, the law now could help Hispanics gain control of the Harlem seat. That’s because the law protects minority groups’ ability to elect representatives of their choice.
The 81-year-old Mr. Rangel has represented Harlem since 1971 and, thanks to the power of incumbency, is given a good shot of winning in 2012 even after he was censured by Congress for ethics violations. The redistricting is more likely to affect elections after Mr. Rangel retires.