The Politics of Skin Color

July 09, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Just ask any member of the Congressional Black Caucus or one of their special-interest support groups that railed against the Supreme Court's decision throwing into doubt specially crafted minority election districts.

To hear them tell it, this is the end of democracy as we know it. One advocate called it ''the first step in the resegregation of American electoral democracy.''

In fact, the court decision may lead in the opposite direction: An end to a dangerous trend toward segregating voters according to race.

Thanks to a revised Voting Rights Act and a zealous Justice Department, states were coerced in the early 1990s into creating a slew of ''majority-minority districts.'' Wherever possible, the Justice Department said states must carve out congressional districts based solely on race to increase the number of minority seats.

The Supreme Court case shows the extent of federal coercion. Twenty-seven percent of Georgia's population is black, but the Justice Department insisted on three minority districts. Twice the Georgia legislature presented maps with two minority districts and a third with a 35 percent minority population. Not good enough. The only way to satisfy the feds, said Georgia's attorney general, was to ''violate all reasonable standards of compactness and contiguity.'' That's what happened.

The new 11th District ties together vastly dissimilar urban and rural regions with little in common -- except race. Areas are linked by thin ''land bridges,'' often only swamp corridors. The district stretches from Atlanta to the Atlantic (6,784 square miles), splits eight counties and five towns and marches through 22 counties. The goal was to shove as many blacks into the district as possible.

The 11th District elected a black congresswoman. But Georgia also elected a record number of Republicans, in part because so many liberal,black voters had been thrown into the 11th to manufacture a third ''minority'' district.

As many as 10 Democratic seats were lost to Republicans last year because of the creation of these new minority districts. The Justice Department also demanded blacks have lopsided majorities in these districts: The 11th, for instance, is 66 percent black.

Does such segregation by race further democracy? Do ''separate but equal'' congressional districts determined by skin color help solve our nation's problems?

These new districts may be exacerbating matters. Liberal blacks from overwhelmingly black districts and conservative Republicans from overwhelmingly white districts tend to polarize issues: They see politics through narrow prisms.

As the court noted in a 1993 redistricting case, ''When a district obviously is created solely to effectuate the perceived common interest of one racial group, elected officials are more likely to believe that their primary obligation is to represent only the members of that group, rather than their constituency as a whole.''

Ironically, creating minority districts stifles the ability of blacks to further increase their numbers. Why? Because all the black and minority votes have been packed into these districts. There are fewer and fewer ''integrated'' districts.

Look at Maryland. The state, under Justice Department pressure, created a second minority district in a way that endangers a neighboringliberal white Democrat. Mapmakers used a reapportionment vacuum to suck up every black and minority precinct in northern Prince George's County and Montgomery County to give Albert Wynn a district with only 33 percent whites.

But that meant liberal Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, who had been very popular in his old district (35 percent black), was left with a new district 77 percent white -- and conservative. Consequently, Mr. Hoyer continues to scramble for his political life: His voting record has become increasingly less liberal.

Over time, the Hoyer seat could fall into the hands of a conservative -- a direct consequence of the crusade for minority voting districts.

The same thing could happen in Baltimore, where Rep. Kweisi Mfume's 73 percent black district meanders all over the metro region to soak up black voters while Rep. Ben Cardin's wandering district soaks up white voters (80 percent).

Down the road, the Cardin district could easily belong to a white conservative.

Both Mr. Cardin and Mr. Hoyer have been weakened politically because a crucial base of support -- the black voter -- has been stripped from their districts. This leaves them vulnerable: By the end of the decade, both incumbents could be history.

It's a shame. There's no reason the Wynn, Hoyer, Cardin and Mfume districts can't be fully integrated. Probably all four incumbents could survive because they are good politicians. And in the future, it would be possible for skilled black leaders who believe in ''melting-pot politics'' to elect blacks from all four districts.

That could never happen under the Justice Department's rules. But now the Supreme Court has changed those rules. Melting-pot democracy has gotten a jump-start. And politics based solely on race has received a well-deserved setback.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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