FEW CASES more aptly illustrate the interplay of law, public policy and raw politics than challenges to majority-black voting districts. Two of those challenges, from North Carolina and Texas, were argued before the Supreme Court this week, leaving a divided court to decide what role race should play in devising districts and, in fact, whether its previous decisions leave room for race to be a factor at all.
The stakes are high, and not just for the minority office-holders who would not have won their seats without a district drawn along racial lines. Racial gerrymandering, or the creation of majority-minority districts, is designed to give minorities a greater voice in government and in political life. It assumes that blacks or other minorities will not be elected in sufficient numbers without specially drawn districts; that has indeed been the case in much of the country.
Yet there is a larger question: Does this goal -- the election of blacks and other minorities -- further the greater aim of creating a society in which race is not a barrier, in which no American will encounter segregation as a debilitating obstacle? Push beyond the liberal-conservative cant and there are ominous signs that majority-minority districts may in fact be depriving minorities of a more meaningful voice in politics.
The minority districts under challenge were drawn after the 1990 Census and approved by the Bush administration. Is it simply coincidence that the South, home to some 53 percent of the nation's blacks, is now rapidly turning into a bastion of white Republicanism, a significant factor in GOP control of Congress? Black congressional representatives elected from majority-black districts in the South are finding themselves increasingly lonely Democrats in their state caucuses as well as on Capitol Hill.
The painful truth is that the increase in the number of majority-minority congressional districts may in fact have helped to decrease the overall power of minorities in Congress. They have also contributed to an ominous trend, currently more obvious in the South than in other parts of the country, toward a political system in which Republicans have become the party of the white majority.
That looks to us like a re-segregation of American politics, not an advancement for minorities. To the extent that minority districts contribute to this trend, we hope the Supreme Court will craft a solution that works toward a removal of racial barriers, not the erection of new ones, however subtle they may be.