Fostering 'Political Apartheid'

BARRY RASCOVAR

July 04, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Lani Guinier just can't win. Having been ditched by her friend, Bill Clinton, her views now seem to have been rejected -- indirectly -- by the Supreme Court.

Among the positions that landed Ms. Guinier in trouble was the argument that elected black officials representing mixed constituencies are less "authentic" -- i.e., that blacks can't receive adequate representation from a black official if he or she must also placate a large white voting bloc within that district. Only black districts with a super-majority of blacks count.

Now the Supreme Court has outlawed some forms of legislative redistricting along these lines if the outcome leads to "political apartheid" -- the intentional separation of the races for voting purposes.

The high court ruling concerns an egregiously gerrymandered congressional district in North Carolina.

Maryland's redistricting wasn't so flagrant. Instead, the federal Voting Rights Act was used here to justify a policy of "packing" minority voters into separate districts. That still appears legal -- so far, at least.

But a portion of last week's Supreme Court ruling raises questions about the way Maryland went about increasing the number of minority legislators:

"Racial classifications of any sort pose the risk of lasting harm to our society," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote.

"They reinforce the belief . . . individuals should be judged by the color of their skin. Racial classifications with respect to voting carry particular dangers. 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. . . ."

Sadly, we're heading that way. Wherever possible, the governor and General Assembly drew new legislative districts for the 1990s that pack blacks into minority districts to guarantee more black representation. That has the unintended effect of also creating more lily-white districts where minorities have little chance of winning elections.

And this strategy does away with "mixed" districts composed of, say, 40 percent blacks or 35 percent whites. Maryland's legislative districts for both Congress and the General Assembly are becoming more segregated -- on purpose.

Short-term, this helps minorities. It guarantees more blacks in the General Assembly and Congress. But it strikes a blow at consensus politics. You end up with white legislators and black legislators with little in common as far as their constituents are concerned.

For instance, blacks make up a third of the population in Baltimore County's 11th legislative district. Political leaders in Northwest Baltimore County agree black-white coalition tickets would have been inevitable.

But thanks to last year's racial redistricting, most of the blacks were removed to create a new minority district that packs together blacks from western Baltimore City and connecting portions of the county. The upshot: blacks are ensured seats in the new district but are shut out of winning seats in the re-drawn 11th.

A glass ceiling has been erected. A new form of tokenism is being created. Blacks gain a few more seats while being excluded from ever increasing that number.

Look at the situation in Congress. Because blacks were packed into a new minority district in the Washington suburbs and into Rep. Kweisi Mfume's Baltimore-area district, there is no chance of blacks winning more than two of Maryland's eight House seats. The minority quota is frozen at 25 percent for at least a decade.

All the other Maryland districts have small or tiny minority populations. There is less reason for these congressmen to respond to the needs of blacks or to seek their votes.

How much better if blacks had been given a shot at winning a third seat in the Baltimore area and a fourth seat near Washington. Instead, Rep. Ben Cardin's new district is so suburban in character his votes might not be as sensitive to the city's minorities. That has already started to occur in the Washington suburbs, where Rep. Steny Hoyer's votes no longer reflect a congressman with a large and powerful minority constituency: His new district is white and conservative. Mr. Hoyer is moderating his liberalism.

Is this good for America? I think not. Democracy works best when there is a determined effort at coalition-building and compromise. But when political districts are segregated by race, the community of interests in a legislature disappears. Polarization occurs. It is harder to reconcile extreme positions.

As Justice O'Connor put it, "racial gerrymandering, even for remedial purposes, may balkanize us into competing racial factions."

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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