Racial Politics

January 19, 1995|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — Charleston, South Carolina. -- Some time within the next few weeks the Supreme Court will plunge again into the thicket of racial politics. The court will hear argument in cases from Louisiana and Georgia involving the racial composition of bizarrely shaped voting districts. Other cases from Texas and Maryland are pending. By the end of term in June, we may know a little more about gerrymandering to benefit minority voters.

All these redistricting cases rest upon a foundation of history and assumption. The history is not pretty. In 1870 the states ratified the 15th Amendment, asserting that the right to vote must not be denied or abridged on account of race. For the next 100 years, the Southern states treated that amendment with total contempt.

Then came the Voting Rights Acts, and the South's political world turned upside down. Every election law, down to the moving of precinct polling places, became subject to decrees from the Justice Department and the federal courts. Given the South's disgraceful history of trickery and malice, it is understandable that the feds to this day look with suspicion upon the redrawing of district lines.

To my knowledge (I have lived all my life in the South), the right to vote is no longer denied or significantly abridged anywhere in Dixie. But such good conduct no longer suffices. A notion has taken root that minorities have not only a right to vote but also a right to win. Their political power must not be ''diluted.''

Toward that end, the government assumes that blacks will vote as a bloc for black candidates. Thus, wherever a sufficient number of blacks can be rounded up and herded into a congressional district, black candidates will be elected and blacks will get the racial representation it is assumed they desire and deserve.

Which brings us to the pending Supreme Court cases. One challenge goes to Louisiana's new 4th District. In an effort to comply with the Voting Rights Acts, as construed by the Justice Department, the state dutifully drew up a new district in which a black candidate would be just about guaranteed a seat in Congress.

But the thing is, the states are really not supposed to be doing this -- not deliberately. Mustn't be blatant. Race may be one factor in redistricting, but it shouldn't be the sole factor. The whole charade is a game of play-pretend.

A three-judge federal court looked at Louisiana's redrawn district. The court saw a racial gerrymander. ''The bizarre and irregular shape of District Four raises the inference that the Louisiana Legislature classified its citizens along racial lines and segregated them into voting districts accordingly.'' The court was shocked. Shocked!

The state put two state senators, a geographer and a sociologist

on the witness stand in an effort to explain the bizarre shape on other than racial grounds. They failed. Their rationalizations were ''mere pretext,'' said the court. The district lines were ''the product of race-conscious decision making.''

So, too, in Georgia. The state legislature created an 11th District with boundaries not merely bizarre but spectacularly bizarre. A federal court concluded that evidence of the state's intentional racial gerrymandering was overwhelming. The lines soared over fields, rivers and marshes to reach into black neighborhoods of Savannah and coastal Chatham County.

The state attempted to defend the new lines: They bounded a ''community of interest'' because most of the voters were black. But the problem with this defense, said the District Court, ''is that such a community of interest is barred from constitutional recognition.'' The court had no doubt that black citizens share concerns relating to their condition as blacks, but a voting district configured to cater to these ''black'' concerns ''is a race-based voting district.''

It's hard to predict what the Supreme Court will do with these cases. In June 1993, the justices divided 5-4 on a North Carolina redistricting case. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, speaking for the majority, found it ''unsettling'' that the pro-black gerrymandering bears ''an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid.''

Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting, had an interesting view. Gerrymandering that makes it more difficult for blacks, he said, is forbidden. But gerrymandering that makes it easier for blacks is OK. This, said Stevens, is equal justice under the law. Historically speaking, maybe it is.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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