Race Politics in America

PETER SCHRAG

May 20, 1993|By PETER SCHRAG

A couple of weeks ago, just as President Clinton wa nominating the controversial Lani Guinier to be the new U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights, National Public Radio broadcast a troubling report on the effects of the Voting Rights Act in Mississippi. Together, the two said a great deal about the state of race politics in America.

In effect, the radio report suggested that while redistricting under the act has resulted in the election of more black legislators, it has eroded the moderate and liberal interracial coalitions that helped drive major improvements in schools and other social policies in Mississippi. There are at least a half-dozen other states where something similar may be occurring.

The NPR story and the Guinier nomination have no direct connection, but they illustrate parts of the same problem.

In a series of articles, Ms. Guinier has taken the position that the Voting Rights Act is insufficient -- that whites will always be in the majority in the nation's elected political bodies and thus will always outvote minorities.

To remedy that, Ms. Guinier, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has proposed a variety of weighted voting schemes that, she hopes, would force the white majority to be more responsive to minority concerns. Those proposals sound to many people like an ironic echo of John C. Calhoun's doctrine of the ''concurrent majority'' -- essentially an attempt to give Southern slaveholders a check on the increasing number of congressmen from the free states in the decades before the Civil War.

Underlying and compounding those arguments is Ms. Guinier's contention that politicians like Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia may be ''inauthentic'' black leaders because they have to appeal to white voters to be elected. At the same time, she opposes the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that seek to concentrate minority voters in single districts. The act, she has argued, creates safe minority seats (and also creates safe white districts) in which incumbents have to pay less and less attention to their constituents -- and white legislators have to pay less and less attention to blacks.

That criticism is correct. But Ms. Guinier's quarrel is primarily with the results. She doesn't question the objective, which is to enlarge the clout of minority voters beyond their numbers. Thus she seems to favor proposals for minority vetoes, race-based proportional representation, supermajorities, or devices like ''cumulative voting.'' In such a system, where six seats are to be filled in, say, a City Council election, each voter could choose to cast one vote for each of six candidates or six votes for one (or any other combination of six votes), thereby allowing voters to concentrate their ballots.

But such a system would foster single-issue politics, which is already distorting the process. Perhaps blacks will concentrate their votes to increase their representation, but it's just as likely to be done by the gun lobby, animal-rights groups, the anti-abortion lobby and the KKK. Worse, it assumes that the political power of ethnic minorities has to be artificially enlarged so that they can pursue unique interests that, if they're asserted in racial terms, will do nothing but generate further animosities.

As the NPR report showed, race-based attempts to even political power between ethnic groups -- whether by gerrymander or other means -- not only undermine the interracial coalitions (generally moderate and liberal) that have driven progressive public policies for more than a generation, they can institutionalize the very racism that they're purportedly designed end.

Social progress in America has grown from appeals to one race or ethnic group, in part because minority-based political theory has never been acceptable to most Americans, and in (larger) part because almost nothing positive or progressive has been enacted in this society -- from wage-and-hour laws to Social Security to civil rights to free public education -- that does not transcend racial and ethnic categories.

The Voting Rights Act was absolutely sound as long as its purpose was to remove barriers to political parity for minority voters. But a decade ago, when it turned to the task of drawing districts whose only purpose was to maximize the chances that a black or a Hispanic would be elected -- districts whose bizarre shapes make even the old gerrymander look pretty -- it began to fail its own objectives.

Ms. Guinier's defenders say her articles, most of them in law journals, are only theoretical attempts -- attempts that should be welcome -- to deal with legitimate issues related to minority voting rights. But any reconstruction of the electoral process based on a theory of inherently different race-based interests sounds more like the South Africa of a generation ago than the country that the giants of civil rights in America, white and black, sought to build.

Peter Schrag is a columnist for McClatchy Newspapers.

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