Racial Gerrymandering

June 29, 1993

That ink blot below is the 12th Congressional District of North Carolina, but it may not be for long. The Supreme Court ruled in a case yesterday that drawing irrational district lines to ensure blacks get seats in Congress is unconstitutional when it unfairly "dilutes or cancels out white voting strength." A trial court must now decide if that has occurred in North Carolina. It probably has.

It probably has not occurred in Maryland. Maryland's Fourth Congressional District in southern Prince George's County and eastern Montgomery County has attributes the North Carolina 12th does not. More on that later.

North Carolina legislators drew a redistricting map that created not one but two heavily black districts, at the insistence of the U.S. Department of Justice. The other district was hardly consistent with the traditional requirement that districts be "contiguous and compact." But compared to the 12th it was almost textbook logical.

The 12th, the court noted, is "approximately 160 miles long and for much of its length no wider than the I-85 corridor . . . Northbound and southbound drivers on I-85 sometimes find themselves in separate districts in one county, only to 'trade' districts when they enter the next." There are several such bizarre-shaped districts around the nation today, drawn after the 1990 Census with the sole intent of "packing" enough black voters together to elect black representatives.

We have always been uneasy about this sort of racial gerrymandering, though we never thought it was unconstitutional. As Justice David Souter in one dissent and Justice Byron White in another both emphasized, no right or benefit is lost to an individual member of a majority group merely by placing him in one or another political subdivision. Whites in the 12th can still vote, petition their representatives. Further, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that minority voters may be "favored" by districting laws, as Justice Sandra O'Connor noted herself, to prevent the sort of racial discrimination so long associated with white-majority rule in the South and for which a Civil War was fought and far-reaching amendments were added to the Constitution.

But having said that, and siding with the legal arguments of the four dissenters, we also should say there is much wisdom in Justice O'Connor's opinion: "Racial gerrymandering even for remedial purposes may Balkanize us into competing racial factions; it threatens to carry us further from the goal of a political system in which race no longer matters, a goal that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments embody and to which the nation continues to aspire." Good, topical way to put it. The 1th Congressional District of North Carolina looks as if it was drawn by peace mediators Cyrus Vance and David Owen for the Balkans.

Justice O'Connor suggests that a congressional district that is logical in other respects -- geography, common interests, etc. -- would be approved even if its lines were drawn principally to create a black majority. Maryland's Fourth fits that description and should be safe. It is compact and most of its suburban Washington residents have similar economic and social concerns.

But no one can be sure about future rulings. The court has launched electoral rights law into unmapped legal territory.

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