Black districts: A bad idea

Carol M. Swain

June 04, 1993|By Carol M. Swain

THE debate over Lani Guinier's fitness to serve as the Justice Department's civil rights chief rightly centers on her distrust of the democratic process and her failure to acknowledge African-Americans' significant progress under the Voting Rights Act.

She favors artificial schemes for increasing the political power of minorities.

I disagree. African-Americans, for example, cannot benefit from the continued emphasis on segregating black voters in black-majority districts.

When the new House was sworn in last January, the number of black members rose to 38 from 25. They now constitute nearly 9 percent of the House as against 12 percent of blacks in the population. Much of the gain comes from segregating black voters into black-majority districts.

This strategy may not only cap the number of blacks in the House but also cut them off from white voters whose support black politicians need to win.

The zeal to draw black-majority districts has led to the creation of bizarre ones such as North Carolina's 12th, a serpentine monstrosity that runs 160 miles along Interstate 85. It connects communities in far-flung parts of the state that have little in common other than race.

Foes of the reapportionment argued in the Supreme Court in April that the gerrymandered district amounts to reverse discrimination against whites.

Blacks' goal of adequate representation in federal and state legislatures was complicated by a Supreme Court ruling in March. In Voinovich vs. Quilter, it upheld an Ohio reapportionment plan that concentrated black voters into state legislative districts even though there was no evidence of discrimination or obstacles to voters' ability to elect candidates of choice.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court, declared, "The state may create any district it might desire, so long as minority voting strength is not diluted as a result."

In the Voinovich case, four black Democrats signed the plaintiff's brief. Instead of a few districts with black majorities, the plaintiffs wanted more districts where sizable black populations could influence outcomes.

The segregation of black voters into black-majority districts may produce easy electoral victories for black candidates and insulate incumbents from opponents, but it virtually precludes further gains.

As other minorities such as Asians and, especially, Latinos gain ground, blacks and whites constitute declining proportions of the national population.

Since the turnout of black voters is smaller than that of white voters, and since the black population is becoming less geographically concentrated, black-majority districts do not seem a promising way to significantly increase blacks' representation.

If black candidates run mostly in black districts, those who want to run for governor or the Senate will face an added disadvantage. Not only will they lack connections to influential white voters whose support they need, they will have accumulated little experience in developing and maintaining biracial coalitions.

An increasing number of blacks have been elected in mainly white jurisdictions at all levels.

Virginia elected Douglas L. Wilder as governor. Illinois elected Carol Moseley Braun as senator. Alan Wheat, Democrat of Missouri, was first elected to the House in 1982 from an 80 percent white district. Gary Franks, Republican of Connecticut, was first elected in 1990 in a district that is 4 percent black.

There is no reason why blacks elected in white-majority districts can't represent black voters and still find favor with whites.

Mr. Wheat, who consistently holds positions favored by national black leaders, has been re-elected with wide margins. Mr. Franks' support of GOP initiatives reminds everyone that not all blacks are liberal Democrats.

Blacks are divided on how best to increase their representation.

They'll achieve that goal when they and other voting rights advocates fully recognize that whites will elect blacks and that white politicians often represent the needs of black voters.

Carol M. Swain, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, is author of "Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress."

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