Black-Majority Congressional Districts May Undermine Black Americans’ Political Power

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
First published by The NY Times, Sept 23, 2004

The Voting Rights Act – signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965 – was a high point of the civil rights era. In 1965, there were 5 black members of Congress; today there are 39. No single piece of legislation since the 14th Amendment has had such a measurable and dramatic effect on the political fortunes of black Americans.

What’s not so clear is whether the effect is now mainly a positive one.

In 1965, in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” police riot on Pettus Bridge in Selma, a young civil rights leader named John Lewis risked his life for the cause of black enfranchisement. Yet two years ago, the same John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, found himself accused by John Ashcroft’s Justice Department of violating the Voting Rights Act.

That’s because he and his fellow Georgia Democrats backed a plan to reduce the concentration of minority voters in various districts. And Section 5 of the act prohibits “retrogression”: a change in district boundaries that would diminish a district’s percentage of black voters.

It sounds like some political “Freaky Friday”: was Mr. Ashcroft really trying to protect black Georgians from Mr. Lewis? Not exactly.

Mr. Lewis says Georgia is now a place where black candidates can be elected by black-white coalitions. “More and more, black and white voters, especially in the South, see that they’re in the same boat,” he says. “A lot of issues, like protecting the environment, creating jobs, protecting neighborhoods, cleaning up a toxic site, or trying to do something about Iraq, have very little to do with race.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Ashcroft’s record shows little concern for black voters but abundant concern for Republican candidates. As governor of Missouri, he vetoed two bills designed to redress racial inequalities in voter registration.

As U.S. attorney general, he has effectively seconded the Justice Department’s Voting Section to the G.O.P. Remember Tom DeLay’s plan to redistrict Texas to gain seats for Republicans? As Jeffrey Toobin has reported in The New Yorker, career lawyers at the Voting Section had drafted a long internal memo arguing that the DeLay plan would illegally dilute minority voting power. But late last year, Mr. Ashcroft’s political staff approved the plan anyway. Come November, you’ll see the results.

The creation of black-majority districts was necessary when the Democratic Party had a monopoly in the South, and whites would almost never vote for blacks. But since 1990, districting deals between Republicans and black Democrats have led to political mischief. Shepherding black voters into black districts left other districts lily-white – and skewed to the right. You saw the consequences in 1994, when the House came under Republican control.

In Georgia and elsewhere, there has been a clash between what the constitutional scholar Richard Pildes calls “descriptive” and “substantive” representation. Descriptive representation is centered on the symbolism of skin: a black face for a black constituency. But it came at the cost of substantive representation – the likelihood that lawmakers, taken as a whole, would represent the group’s substantive interests. Blacks were winning battles but losing the war as conservative Republicans beat white moderate Democrats.

Still, Georgia v. Ashcroft – finally settled in favor of the Georgia Democrats by the Supreme Court – is really a symptom of a bigger problem: not racial districting but partisan districting. “The United States is the only country that places the power to draw election districts in the hands of self-interested political actors,” Mr. Pildes says. “The joke is that the voters don’t really choose the candidates; the candidates choose their voters.”

Iowa, which has genuinely competitive districts drawn by a nonpartisan panel, is an exception. Jim Leach, a Republican congressman from Iowa, says about 390 seats in the U.S. House are safe for one party or the other: he calls it “the collegiality of incumbency.” The safe Republican districts “tend to nominate to the right of center, while safe Democratic districts tend to nominate left of center.” The result is a polarized Congress.

In 2007, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is set to expire and Congress will have to decide how to respond. After years of race- and party-based redistricting, two things seem likely. There’ll be many black faces in the House – and the Republicans will be running the place.

© 2004 NY Times